Disability Etiquette

Language to use

When writing or speaking about people with disabilities, it is important to put the person first. For example:

  • A person has a disability; they are not a disabled person, the disabled or the handicapped
  • A person uses a wheelchair; they are not confined to it

Don’t be embarrassed if you happen to use a common phrase, such as ‘See you later’ or ‘Got to run’.

If in doubt…ask! An individual with a disability is the expert on their specific situation, and would appreciate someone taking the time to ask them how they can help, rather than assuming or ignoring.

General Etiquette

Talk to the person – Don’t talk to them through another person or as if they are not there. Even when an interpreter is being used, speak directly to the person with whom you are having the conversation.

Ask before you help – Wait until your offer is accepted and then ask or listen for instructions as to how you can be of assistance.

Offer to shake hands – People with limited hand use or who wear an artificial limb can usually shake hands. Follow their lead, i.e. if they extend their opposite hand, change your hand as well.

Do not refer to people with disabilities as heroes. They are living their lives the same as everyone else, dealing with situations, attitudes and barriers. It’s a matter of perspective.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions if you are unsure of what to do.

Physical Disabilities Etiquette

When speaking with a person in a wheelchair, try to place yourself at eye level. Pull up a chair if the conversation is going to be lengthy.

Never lean or hold on to someone’s wheelchair, unless you have permission to assist in moving the chair. A wheelchair is part of someone’s personal space.

Be sensitive about physical contact – Some people with disabilities depend on their arms for balance. Grabbing them, even if your intention is to assist, could knock them off balance.

Visual Impairments Etiquette

Speak to the person when you approach and state who you are.

If in a group, identify yourself and the person to whom you are speaking.

Do not attempt to lead the individual without first asking – allow the person to hold your arm and control their own movements.

Never touch or distract a service dog without first asking the owner – remember these dogs are working.

Be descriptive when giving directions – verbally give the person information that is visually obvious to individuals who can see. For example, if you are approaching steps, mention how many steps. Use the hands of a clock to identify directions.

When entering a strange room, give a brief orientation to the room, its dimensions and any potential barriers.

Hearing Impairments Etiquette

Do not shout – if the person can hear on their own or by using a hearing device, shouting will only serve to distort what you are saying.

Make sure that you have the person’s attention before speaking. Look directly at the person to whom you are speaking, and don’t turn your head away in the middle of a sentence.

If using an interpreter, don’t speak to the interpreter, and don’t tell the interpreter what to say, i.e. “Ask Bill how he is doing”. Speak directly to the person with the hearing impairment.

If there is no interpreter available, it is appropriate to communicate through writing.

Mental Health Disabilities Etiquette

Avoid making critical comments or pointing out any physical symptoms – unless they are obviously distressed or physically in danger.

Remain flexible and attentive to the person, not the disability.

Be patient and open minded.