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Disability Etiquette

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

Disability vs. Handicap

While these terms may seem to have the same meaning, to an individual possessing one or both may be offended by the improper use.  Just 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 physical or attitudinal constraint that is imposed upon a person, regardless of whether that person has a disability. A set a stairs would be a handicap for a person with a disability who uses a wheelchair.

General Rules of Etiquette

  • 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 super human.
  • 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.

Conversation Etiquette with a Person Who Has a Hearing Disability

  • 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.

Conversation Etiquette with a Person 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.

Conversation Etiquette with a Person Who is Visually Disabled

  • 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.