Disability Etiquette

Disability Etiquette: Tips for Interacting with People with Disabilities

  • Use “People First” language when speaking. The following “people-first” phrases may serve as a helpful guideline:

Affirmative Phrase: person with a disability; people with disabilities
Negative Phrase: the disabled; handicapped; crippled; suffers from an affliction

Affirmative Phrase: person who is blind; person with low vision
Negative Phrase: the blind

Affirmative Phrase: person who is deaf; person with a hearing loss
Negative Phrase: the deaf; deaf and dumb; suffers/afflicted with a hearing loss

Affirmative Phrase: person with a mental illness
Negative Phrase: crazy; psycho; lunatic

Affirmative Phrase: person with a developmental disability
Negative Phrase: retarded; mentally defective; slow

Affirmative Phrase: person who uses a wheelchair
Negative Phrase: confined to a wheelchair; wheelchair bound

Affirmative Phrase: person with a physical disability; person with limited mobility
Negative Phrase: cripple; lame; handicapped; deformed

  • Avoid euphemisms such as “physically challenged,” “special needs,” “differently abled” or “handi-capable.” Many disability groups and individuals with disabilities object to these phrases because they are considered condescending and reinforce the idea that disabilities cannot be spoken of in an upfront and direct manner.
  • Do not sensationalize a disability by using terms such as “afflicted with,” “suffers from,” or “crippled with.” These expressions are considered offensive and inaccurate to people with disabilities.
  • When referring to people who use wheelchairs, avoid terms such as “wheelchair bound” or “confined to a wheelchair.” In the eyes of many wheelchair users, their wheelchairs do not confine them but instead they provide freedom of movement and enable the user to travel more easily throughout the community.
  • When writing or speaking about people with disabilities, emphasize abilities rather than limitations, focusing on a person’s accomplishments, creative talents or skills. This does not mean avoiding mention of a person’s disability, but simply doing so in a respectful manner.

Wheelchair Users

  • If the person appears to have little hand strength or movement, do not be afraid to shake hands. This is a traditional part of business and social etiquette and signals that you are giving equal consideration.
  • Allow the person with a disability to guide you. He or she will have developed ways to handle common social situations.
  • Do not hold on to a person’s wheelchair. It is a part of the person’s body space and invading that space is both inappropriate and dangerous.
  • Talk directly to the person using the wheelchair, not to an attendant or third party.
  • During a conversation with a person using a wheelchair, consider sitting down or kneeling in order to share eye level. This is not only more respectful, but will be more comfortable for both parties.
  • Avoid inappropriate terms such as: “cripple,” “confined to a wheelchair,” “bed-ridden,” “wheelchair-bound,” “deformed,” or “suffering from a disability.” Instead, use terms such as: “person with a physical disability” or “person who uses a wheelchair.”
  • If you notice someone with a mobility impairment having difficulty with a particular task, ask the person if he or she would like your assistance. Do not assume that hey “need” your help. Offering to assist in opening a door, loading a wheelchair into a car, or pushing it up a steep hill are helpful, but help only if your assistance is desired.

Deafness and Hearing Loss

  • Use a normal voice tone and provide a clear view of your mouth.
  • If a sign language interpreter is involved, make eye contact and speak directly to the person who is deaf, not the interpreter.
  • Ask the person to repeat themselves if you do not understand.
  • Avoid standing in front of a light source or window that might silhouette your face, making it difficult to see you clearly.
  • Use facial expressions, body language, and pantomime.
  • Explain any interruption (such as a phone ringing or knock at the door) before attending to it.
  • Install a Teletypewriter (TTY) in your office. Advertise its availability and learn how to operate it properly. Also learn how to utilize the dual-party relay system (711) provided by the telephone company to facilitate unrestricted conversation between a person using a TTY and a person without one, day or night. Today, many computers and phone systems may also serve as a TTY.
  • Use fax machines and email to communicate. Many people who are deaf have fax machines or email access in their homes to facilitate communication.
  • Learn how to find a sign language interpreter on short notice.
  • Contact the national office of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, 8719 Colesville Road, Suite #310, Silver Spring, MD 20910. Phone: (301) 608-0050 (Voice and TTY).
  • Make sure that sound amplification systems are of high quality and as clear as possible.

** Additional Ideas for Events, Group Meetings, or Training Sessions

  • Publish written notices of events that are usually announced orally.
  • Arrange to have messages that are delivered by a public address system relayed in writing.
  • At meetings, arrange seating to allow for a good line of sight to presenters and among all participants.
  • During discussions, provide a portable microphone and ask that all participants use it when speaking, even if the conversation becomes heated.
  • Enforce the process of only one person speaking at a time. Some meeting facilitators use a small object such as a ball or gavel to indicate whose turn it is to speak. This also allows the person who is deaf or hard of hearing to easily identify who will be speaking next.
  • Provide paper and pencils at all tables to facilitate communication.
  • Arrange for people with hearing loss to sit near the speaker in lecture situations.
  • Remind all speakers to avoid talking with their backs to the audience.
  • Maximize the use of visual aids, such as flip charts.
  • Arrange for a sign language interpreter or assign someone to take notes. One method of transcribing oral communication is Real Time Captioning. A typist, using a computer and special equipment, enters the speech or presentation and the text is projected onto a screen for participants.
  • Provide as much information about the meeting to participants and sign language interpreters prior to the meeting time, including specialized vocabulary, correct spelling of names, agendas, and speakers’ notes or prepared remarks.

To learn some basic signs, please visit: The American Sign Language Browser


Blindness and Vision Loss

  • Introduce yourself to a person who is blind or visually impaired by using your name and/or title, especially when you enter or leave a room.
  • To guide a person who is blind, let him or her take your arm. If you encounter steps, curbs, or other obstacles, identify them and pause briefly before proceeding.
  • When giving directions, be as clear and specific as possible.
  • Estimate the distance in steps, and point out obvious obstacles in the direct path of travel.
  • Speak directly to the person in a normal tone and speed. Do not shout or speak in an unnaturally loud voice.
  • Do not pet or play with a working guide or “service” dog (usually indicated by a harness). The dog is working and should not be distracted. If you are unsure whether or not it is okay to pet or interact with the dog, ask the owner.
  • When entering or leaving a room, say so. Anyone would feel foolish talking into thin air or not knowing who is present.
  • When a person who has a vision loss is meeting many people, introduce them individually. This helps the person to better associate names and voices for subsequent encounters.
  • Be precise and thorough when you describe people, places or things.
  • Feel free to use descriptive language. References to colors, patterns, designs and shapes are perfectly acceptable.
  • To facilitate mobility on a path of travel, remove displays or other objects; avoid clutter; use large letter signs; raise low-hanging signs or lights above 80 inches.
  • Use alternative formats for written materials, such as Braille, large print, and audio. For example, increase the frequency of oral announcements; provide audiotapes or Braille transcripts of frequently requested information; read aloud brochures or important information.
  • Provide information on computer disk, identifying the word processing software used (e.g. WordPerfect 5.1).
  • Add raised or Braille lettering to elevator control buttons.
  • Install entrance indicators such as strips of textured material near doorways, elevators, etc.
  • Produce printed information with good contrast for maximum visibility.. Because white paper can produce a glare, use light yellow or off-white non-glossy paper.
  • Use radio for announcements and advertising, and/or make certain that television advertising is audio descriptive.
  • Do not use telephone numbers with words such as 1-800-FYI-EYES as letters on the telephone keypad can be difficult to read.
  • Have optical magnifiers and other optical aids available for people with visual impairments to use.
  • Provide audio description services at movie theaters, performing arts events and venues, and any other primarily visual activities, including sporting events.