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Disability Etiquette

Communicating with and about individuals with disabilities


When writing or speaking about people with disabilities, it is important to put the person first. Many people still view persons with disabilities as individuals to be pitied, feared, or ignored. These attitudes may arise from discomfort with individuals who are perceived to be different or simply from a lack of information.

Listed below are the "Ten Commandments of Etiquette for Communicating with Individuals with Disabilities" to help you in communicating with individuals with disabilities. We must look beyond the disability and look at the individual's ability and capacity — the things that make each of us unique and worthwhile.

  1. When talking with an individual with a disability, speak directly to that person rather than through a companion or interpreter.
  2. When introduced to a person with a disability, it is appropriate to offer to shake hands. People with limited hand use or who wear an artificial limb can usually shake hands. (Shaking hands with the left hand is an acceptable greeting.)
  3. When meeting a person who is visually impaired, always identify yourself and others who may be with you. When conversing in a group, remember to identify the person to whom you are speaking.
  4. If you offer assistance, wait until the offer is accepted. Then listen to or ask for instructions.
  5. Treat adults as adults. Address people who have disabilities by their first names only when extending the same familiarity to all others.
  6. Leaning on or hanging on to a person's wheelchair is similar to leaning on or hanging on to a person and is generally considered annoying. The chair is part of the personal body space of the person who uses it. (Never patronize people who use wheelchairs by patting them on the head or shoulders.)
  7. Listen attentively when you're talking with a person who has difficulty speaking. Be patient and wait for the person to finish, rather than correcting or speaking for the person. If necessary, ask short questions that require short answers, a nod or shake of the head. Never pretend to understand if you are having difficulty doing so. Instead, repeat what you have understood and allow the person to respond. The response will clue you in and guide your understanding. (You may ask them to spell the word if you don't understand them.)
  8. When speaking with a person who uses a wheelchair or a person who uses crutches, place yourself at eye level in front of the person to facilitate the conversation.
  9. To get the attention of a person who is deaf, tap the person on the shoulder or wave your hand. Look directly at the person and speak clearly, slowly, and expressively to determine if the person can read your lips. Not all people who are deaf can read lips. For those who do lip read, be sensitive to their needs by placing yourself so that you are facing the light source and keep hands, cigarettes and food away from your mouth when speaking.
  10. Relax. Don't be embarrassed if you use accepted common expressions, such as "See you later" or "Did you hear about that?", that seem to relate to a person's disability. Don't be afraid to ask questions when you're unsure of what to do.

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