Disability Etiquette

Disability etiquette refers to guidelines on how to interact with people with disabilities. Because one in five Americans has a disability, the chance is great that you do or will in the future interact with someone with a disability. As with all people, it is important to treat people with disabilities how you would want to be treated‐‐in a respectful way. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 was created with the goal of integrating people with disabilities into all aspects of life. In addition to keeping in the spirit of the ADA, being sensitive to the needs of people with disabilities will also help public health officials and others serve people with disabilities more effectively.

Communicating with people with disabilities

A general guideline is that adults with disabilities should be treated as adults. For instance, a person with a disability should be called by his or her first name only if others present are called by their first names as well. Common courtesies include asking people with disabilities if they need help before it is given, and listening to instructions they provide. Also, one should take into account the extra time it might take a person with a disability to say or do things. The needs of people with disabilities should be considered when planning events involving them, and they should be informed of barriers ahead of time.1
When meeting with a person with disabilities for the first time, you should avoid asking personal questions about the disability. One should not mention the person’s disability unless it pertains to the conversation or if he or she brings it up. Shaking hands is not required, and if you are unsure whether or not to do this, ask the person whether he or she would like to shake hands with you. A smile with a verbal greeting may be sufficient. It is good at the beginning of your meeting to tell the person where accessible restrooms, telephones, and water fountains are located.
During conversations with a person with disabilities, it is important to speak directly to him or her, instead of through whoever might be accompanying the person. Don’t worry if you unintentionally use common phrases like “Got to run” or “See you later”, that might relate to the person’s disability.

Language describing people with disabilities (people first language)

Disability etiquette should be used not only in communication, but also in how we refer to people with disabilities. Language describing people with disabilities can either show respect, or it can be damaging and degrading. You can help promote independence and integration of people with disabilities by avoiding the use of outdated language to describe them. The public will follow the lead of public health officials, the media, and elected officials if people with disabilities are referred to in appropriate ways. Use “disability” instead of “handicap” when referring to a person’s disability. Say “person with a disability” rather than “a disabled person.” This way, it is the person who is being thought of first, instead of his or her disability. Do not refer to people with certain disabilities as members of groups, such as “the disabled,” “the epileptics,” or “the blind.” Descriptive terms should not be used as nouns, but as adjectives. Avoid negative descriptions of a disability; for instance, don’t refer to people with disabilities as “patients” unless they are getting treatment at a medical facility, and don’t describe them as “invalids,” “suffering from,” “afflicted with,” or “victims of.” These descriptions tend to bring out pity toward people with disabilities, when what is needed is respect. Also, do not describe people who use mobility or adaptive equipment as “wheelchair‐bound” or “confined to a wheelchair,” because, on the contrary, this equipment allows them access they might not have without it.2
Don’t portray people with disabilities as exceedingly courageous or superhuman, since this implies that it is extraordinary for people with disabilities to have skills. Describe people who don’t have disabilities as “people without disabilities” or “typical,” instead of “normal”.
It is helpful to learn techniques for interacting with people with specific disabilities, and in certain situations. Learning and applying these techniques will help you and the person with disabilities feel more comfortable.

Physical disabilities

Don’t touch, move, or hang on a person’s mobility device, such as a wheelchair or scooter, since it is an extension of his or her personal space. Don’t pat a person who uses a mobility device on the head—this is patronizing. If you are speaking with a person in a mobility device for more than a few minutes, put yourself at his or her eye level so the person can see you more comfortably. When giving directions to a person who uses a mobility device, keep in mind weather conditions, distance, and any possible physical barriers such as stairs, curbs and steep hills. When meeting, make sure to rearrange the furniture or objects to accommodate the mobility device before the person arrives.

Deaf/hard of hearing

Wave your hand or tap the shoulder of a person who is deaf or hard of hearing to get his or her attention. When a sign language interpreter is there, talk directly to the person, not the interpreter. Face the person and speak clearly and slowly to see if he or she can read lips, since not everyone who is deaf or hard of hearing is able to lip‐read. Speak in a normal tone without shouting, face the light source, keep your hands and food away from your mouth, and write notes when necessary.
Keep conversations clear and use simple sentences, facial expressions, and body language. Make sure to repeat yourself if needed. You might need to move the location of your conversation to find a quieter place to talk.3

Speech and language disorders

Never assume that a person with a speech and language disorder also has an intellectual or developmental disability; often, people with these disabilities speak well. Be patient when talking with people with speech and language disorders and find out which communication method works best for them.
Give your full attention when talking to a person who has difficulty speaking. Be encouraging, and resist speaking for the person. Ask questions that can be answered with a nod or shake of the head or brief answers. If you have difficulty understanding, repeat whatever you understand, and let the person react to it.
Identify yourself and others with you when greeting a person who is blind or has low vision, and say the name of the person to whom you are speaking. Speak in a normal tone of voice, and make sure to indicate when you are about to end the conversation. When walking with a person who is blind or has low vision, offer your arm for guidance to him or her. Be specific and say “left” or “right,” plus an estimated distance when directing the person.4


Use short sentences and stay on one topic at a time. Be patient and give the person time to show or tell you what he or she wants. Be aware of the person’s responses and watch his or her body language. If needed, repeat what you understand the person to be saying, and ask for confirmation that this is correct.5

Interacting with service animals

Don’t pet or feed service animals or guide dogs, since they are working. The animals are responsible for their owner’s safety and are always working. Petting or feeding them could distract them from their duties.6

The way forward

According to the St. Mary’s County Commission for People with Disabilities, “Becoming aware of our own perceptions, stereotypes and discomforts around particular disabilities is the first step towards addressing subtle biases that could possibly be projected onto individuals with disabilities. Our own beliefs and comfort level around disability has a major impact on how we view, interact and provide service and programs to individuals with disabilities.”7
It is important to face these perceptions on both a professional and a personal level. We need to keep in mind that people with disabilities are people first, and they deserve our respect. It is AAHD’s hope that providing these tips on disability etiquette will improve understanding and the quality of interactions with people with disabilities.

1Easter Seals, “Disability Etiquette.” Available at http://www.easterseals.com/site/PageServer?pagename=ntl_etiquette.
2 The Memphis Center for Independent Living, “Talking about Disability: A Guide to Using Appropriate Language.” Available at http://www.mcil.org/mcil/mcil/talking.htm.
3 University of Northern Iowa, “Disability Etiquette.” Available at http://www.uni.edu/equity/DisabilityEtiquette.shtml.
5Tennessee Disability Coalition, “Disability Etiquette.” Available at http://www.tndisability.org/about_coalition/coalition_publications/disability_etiquette.
7 St. Mary’s County Commission for People with Disabilities, “Disability Etiquette: Tips for Interacting with Individuals with Disabilities.” Available at http://www.aahperd.org/aapar/publications/freeresources/upload/Disability‐ Etiquette.pdf.