Disability Etiquette

Your actions and your words give a person a sense of calmness and safety when you are comfortable. Many people do not know what to say or how to act when they meet someone with a disability, but individuals with disabilities have the same feelings as you. Treat someone with a disability the same way you would like to be treated—you can’t go wrong!

  • One of the most important things to remember when having a conversation with a person with a disability is to talk to that person directly, not to their companion. Although you may need some practice in doing this, remembering to make eye contact can make the difference.
  • If it looks like someone with a disability may need assistance, just ask them. The worst they can do is say “No, thank you.”
  • When offering assistance, do it in a dignified manner with sensitivity and respect. If your offer is declined do not proceed to give assistance. If the offer is accepted, listen carefully and follow the instructions carefully.
  • Be patient when an individual is using a communication device.
  • Treat adults as adults. Do not talk down to people with disabilities.
  • Avoid using the following words while talking to or in reference to a person with a disability: Cripple, victim, defect, invalid, sick, diseased, wheelchair-bound, handicapped, retard, mentally retarded, suffers from, deformed, vegetable, dumb, moron, imbecile, or idiot.
  • The following terminology is appropriate when speaking about someone with a disability: blind, visually impaired, hard of hearing, intellectually disabled, non-disabled, physically disabled.
  • Avoid terms that imply that people with disabilities are overly courageous, brave, special, or superhuman.
  • People with disabilities would like equal treatment, not special treatment.
  • Remember, people with disabilities are people first and disabled second.
  • If you must ask someone about their disability, be sensitive and show respect. If the person declines to discuss it, do not probe.

While these terms may seem to have the same meaning, an individual possessing one or both may be offended by the improper use.  To clarify:

  • A disability is a condition caused by an accident, trauma, genetics or disease which may limit a person’s mobility, hearing, vision, speech or mental function. Some people have more than one disability.
  • A handicap is a physical or attitudinal constraint that is imposed upon a person, regardless of whether that person has a disability. A set of stairs would be a handicap for a person with a disability who uses a wheelchair.
  • When talking to a person who uses a wheelchair, whenever possible, sit down to put yourself at their eye level.
  • Not everyone can shake hands. A smile and a verbal greeting are fine. A handshake with the left hand is also acceptable.
  • Never touch a person’s wheelchair, it is an extension of their body. The wheelchair is part of their personal space.
  • A person in a wheelchair “uses a wheelchair” they are not “wheelchair-bound” or “confined to a wheelchair”. A wheelchair liberates, it does not confine.
  • Do not park in a parking space reserved for someone with a disability unless you have the proper identification and the disability that warrants you park to there. People need a bigger space for loading and unloading wheelchairs.
  • To get the attention of a person with a hearing disability, tap them gently on the shoulder. Look directly at the individual and speak clearly. Do not exaggerate your lip movement.
  • Not all people who are hearing disabled read lips. Some individuals will rely on facial expressions and body language to help in understanding.
  • Keep your hands, cigarettes and food away from your mouth while speaking.
  • Shouting will not help and sometimes makes it difficult to hear through listening devices such as micro transmitters or hearing aids.
  • If a person’s speech is hard to understand, do not pretend to understand what they are saying. Ask the person to repeat or re-phrase what they said.
  • When greeting a person with a severe loss of vision, always identify yourself and others who may be with you.
  • Speak in a normal tone of voice.
  • If the person does not extend their hand to shake hands, a verbal welcome will do.
  • Do not pet or distract a guide dog. The dog is responsible for the person’s well-being and safety. Do not make noises at or feed the guide dog.
  • Do not leave the person without excusing yourself first.


Teaching Students with Disabilities 

When teaching a student with any disability, remember, you are the model for the students in your class in how you respond to the student with the disability.

  • Encourage the student to participate in the class activities and be sensitive to the student’s needs, but do not expect less work or achievement.
  • Make your course “disability-friendly.” It is helpful to put a paragraph in your syllabus welcoming students with disabilities and inviting them to make an appointment to discuss their disability and accommodations.
  • Students with disabilities are bound just as all students by the University’s Code of Conduct and should be held to that code. If a student’s behavior becomes very disruptive, dangerous or threatening, the instructor has the option of calling campus security for assistance, just as they would with any other student.
  • If your office is not in an accessible building, make appointments in places that are accessible. Consider weather conditions if a student is late for class or a meeting.

For obvious reasons, students who are deaf or hard of hearing have tremendous obstacles in an academic setting. Disabilities affect different students in different ways. For example, students who are deaf or hard of hearing are not all alike. Some students can read lips and others cannot; some communicate orally and others use sign language, gestures, writing or a combination of methods. Students who have some usable hearing may use a device to amplify sounds; in class, they may rely on hearing aids alone, or they may use an assistive listening device. When students are using assistive listening devices, instructors may be asked to wear cordless lapel micro transmitters.

The following suggestions may improve the academic situation for students who are deaf or hearing impaired:

  • Always speak directly to the student, not the student’s sign language interpreter.
  • During class discussions, ensure that no more than one person speaks at a time. When a member of the class asks a question, repeat the question before answering.
  • Use visual aids whenever possible, such as a blackboard, overhead projector, PowerPoint or handouts.
  • Loss of visual contact may mean loss of information. Unless a student is using a sign language interpreter, be sure that the student has visual contact with you before you begin lecturing. Avoid giving information while handing out papers or writing in the board.
  • Place a simple lesson outline on the board.
  • Write homework assignments on the board to include due dates and other important information.
  • Provide seats in the front of the classroom so students with hearing impairments can get as much from visual and auditory clues as possible.
  • When reading directly from the text, provide an advanced copy and pause slightly when interjecting information, not in the text.

Some students have disabilities that are not easy to see but can cause many obstacles in an educational setting. Students can be disabled by chronic illnesses such as Asthma, Arthritis, Diabetes, HIV, AIDS, Cardiopulmonary Disease, Cancer, Chronic Fatigue, Immune Deficiency Syndrome, and seizure disorders to name a few. They can also be disabled by medical conditions that cause intense and continual pain: for example, repetitive stress injury, post-surgery injury, and back problems.

Symptoms of all these conditions can be unpredictable and fluctuating. Students with chronic illness or pain may have limited energy and difficulty walking, standing or sitting for a long time. Their pain, and/or side-effects of medications, may cause them to become dizzy or confused, making it hard for them to pay attention in classes, complete out-of-class assignments, do library research, and stayed focused during exams.

The following suggestions may help you work effectively with students who have disabling medical conditions:

  • Medical conditions, including medication side effects, may cause problems with fatigue and stamina, which may have a negative effect on concentration during a test or exam. For this reason, students with medical conditions may need extended time on exams.
  • Students with some medical conditions may become dizzy or may lack physical stamina. This may cause them to be unable to get from one building to another or from one campus to another quickly. For these reasons, a student may be late getting to a class. Please be patient when this happens. If tardiness becomes a problem please notify the Office of Human Services.
  • Adaptive seating may be needed for students with physical disabilities. Students who use motorized wheelchairs may need a different style desk. When you have a student with this need in your classroom, please make sure no other student sits at the adaptive desk during that class time. If the necessary seating is not in place, please notify the OHS.
  • Instructors in courses requiring field trips or internships need to work with their students to make sure they are able to travel easily to these locations. For example, the student may need assistance with transportation. The OHS can help with these arrangements.
  • Some students experience recurrence of a chronic condition requiring bed rest and/or hospitalization. In most situations, students are able to make up the incomplete work but they may need extra exam time.

Physical disabilities have many causes: for example, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, and Charcot Marie Tooth (CMT), to name a few. Students with physical disabilities will use many different ways to mobilize themselves around campus. Some will use wheelchairs or scooters, others will use crutches, canes, braces and walkers.

The following information may help you better understand the needs of a student with a physical disability.

  • Students who have upper-body limitations will have note takers or tape recorders with them to get the class notes. Extra room may be needed for them in the front row of the classroom.
  • Extra exam time will be needed for the students with upper-body limitations because they are either dictating their answers to their note-taker or they write very slowly due to their disability. A quiet place will be needed for students taking the test using a note taker so they do not interrupt their classmates.
  • Students with upper-body limitations have difficulty raising their hands in class. Discuss with the student how you will recognize they wish to contribute to the classroom discussion.
  • A wheelchair is part of a person’s personal space. No one should touch it, lean on it or try to push it without being given permission by the owner. A space in the classroom will need to be made to fit the wheelchair. Most classrooms should have the proper seating/desk already in place. If this is not true in your classroom, contact the OHS to take care of this problem.
  • Be aware that a student may choose to transfer out of their wheelchair into the seating in the classroom.
  • Please understand that for reasons beyond their control students with severe physical disabilities may be late to class. Some are unable to move quickly from one location to the next due to congestion on campus, congested elevators, or bad weather conditions. If they live off-campus they may be at the mercy of public transportation. Please discuss with the student how you would like them to handle coming into your class late. If tardiness becomes a chronic problem please report this to the OHS.
  • Instructors who require field trips or internships for their courses need to be aware of the transportation issues for their disabled students. After discussing transportation needs with the disabled student, either the instructor or student needs to contact the OHS if assistance is necessary.
  • Not all physical disabilities are constant and unchanging. Some students may experience setbacks or relapses requiring bed rest or hospitalization. In most cases, the student will be able to complete their work, but they may need extra time.
  • Students who have limited fine motor skills (difficulties writing or pain while writing) may need extended time for tests and exams

Students who are visually disabled vary considerably. Some have no vision, others can see large shapes and some can read standard print if magnified. Depending on their disability, they use a variety of accommodations and equipment.

Most students who are visually disabled will need extended time for tests, exams and projects and will use readers at these times. Like many students with disabilities, students who are visually disabled are at a disadvantage academically. They can hear lectures and discussions but are often frustrated by textbooks, chalkboard diagrams, overhead projectors, films, maps, printed exams.

Most students who are visually disabled take advantage of technology. Computers can enlarge print, read the text on the screen aloud, scan books and articles, and convert print to Braille. Portable note-taking devices, talking calculators and tape recorders may also be used.

The following are suggestions on teaching students who are visually disabled:

  • Before the semester begins have your reading list available. Some of your students will need time to order the books on tape for the course.
  • Students who are visually disabled should be allowed to sit in the front of the classroom, if desired, to be able to hear clearly and see as much as possible.
  • When using the overhead projector with transparencies, provide students who are visually disabled with a printed copy of the material. Talk to the student ahead of time to know what size print should be used.
  • Allow students to use a tape recorder or a note-taker.
  • Read aloud any material you print on the chalkboard.

Learning Commons in Falvey

Second Floor, Falvey Library

The Office of Learning Support Services, in conjunction with faculty, provides reasonable academic accommodations for students with disabilities. Students with learning disabilities, other neurologically-based disorders, and those disabled by chronic illnesses requesting assistance with academic concerns and/or accommodations should contact the office. Students with concerns about specific learning difficulties and strategies are welcome.



Students with Temporary Disabilities

Broken bones, surgery and other unexpected mishaps may cause a student to be temporarily disabled.

These students must follow the same guidelines for getting accommodations as a student with a permanent disability.

  • ODS must have in writing, from a licensed physician, a description of the temporary disability and the projected length of time of the temporary disability.
  • ODS must have in writing a list of reasonable accommodations that relate to the disability.
  • ODS will evaluate the documentation to determine if the students meet eligibility requirements and if the accommodations are reasonable.
  • ODS will approve the reasonable accommodations The student will sign a waiver allowing the ODS to contact professors.
  • The student will introduce themselves to their professor and discuss accommodations.

ODS will only discuss accommodations with the student involved in the process. In order to be able to discuss the accommodations with anyone else, including faculty or parents, the student must sign a waiver.

If any revisions need to be made to the request during the semester,  the request must be delivered in writing to ODS following the same guidelines as listed.



Office of Disability Services

Connelly Center, Second Floor
800 E. Lancaster Ave
Villanova, Pa. 19085

Office Hours: Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.


Technology Toolbox

The Office of Disability Services has provided a list of apps for Apple iPad and/or iPhone that may be helpful for students with disabilities. The list includes programs that are free or available at a reasonable cost. The below list is for informational purposes only.


General Tools

iStudiez Pro: schedule and courseload organizer

myHomework: keep track of assignments


Note Taking

Notability: handwriting, note-taking, audio recording, annotate PDFs, and cloud sync Dropbox

Audio Note: record notes with audio and notepad

Pages: word processor that works with iCloud

SoundNote: notes and synched audio

Evernote: notepad, to-do list, planner



QuickVoice Recorder: popular recorder

NVDA: Enables blind and vision-impaired people to use a computer by communicating what is on the screen using a synthetic voice or braille.

Resources for Students with Visual Impairment

Internet Accessibility Guide