There are times when people are unsure how to interact with someone with a disability or what is appropriate terminology for an individual's disability.

Appropriate etiquette when interacting with people with disabilities is based primarily on normal respect and courtesy. It is important to remember that you are not working with disabilities; you are working with an individual who has a disability.

General Points of Etiquette

  • Relax. Focus on effective communication and not on disability related issues
  • Look and talk directly to the individual, not through their interpreter or assistant
  • Extend common courtesies to people with disabilities such as shaking hands. If the individual cannot shake your hand they will tell you or may offer the other hand to shake
  • Offer assistance before helping. Do not automatically start pushing their wheelchair or take someone's arm or assist them without asking
  • If in doubt, ask what to do. Then, listen and follow the individual's recommendation.


  • The mention of a person's disability is unnecessary if it is not relevant to the context.
  • Use "person first" language. Person first language defines the individual not the disability. Do not define the person by their disability or diagnosis. They are not a schizophrenic, but a "person with schizophrenia." Similarly, the individual is a "person with a disability" not a "handicapped person"
  • Avoid language which disempowers the individual such as "victim" or "sufferer." Similarly, avoid "courageous", "brave" or "special"
  • "Disabled" is the most generally accepted term. Avoid outdated terms like "handicapped," "crippled," "invalid" and "wheelchair bound"
  • For more information

Talking with a person who is D/deaf or Hard of Hearing

  • In general, people who have hearing loss but who communicate verbally are "hard of hearing" and people with profound hearing losses are Deaf or deaf (Difference between "deaf" and "Deaf")
  • If the person uses a sign language interpreter, focus on and speak directly to the person, not to the interpreter. NIH -10 Tips for Using a Sign Language Interpreter
  • Avoid blocking the view of your face and mouth as you talk. This includes covering your mouth with your hand, raising papers in front of your face or turning away.
  • Speak clearly without shouting

When you are with a person who uses a wheelchair

  • Never lean on or touch a person's wheelchair or any other assistive device or service animal without permission. A person's assistive device is part of the person's personal space
  • Be aware to place items within the individual's reach
  • When talking to a wheelchair user, try to sit at his/her level. If that's not possible, stand at a slight distance, so that the person can comfortably make eye contact with you
  • Individuals are "wheelchair users" rather than "confined to a wheelchair" or "wheelchair bound"

Interacting with individuals who are blind or visually impaired

  • It's okay to offer your arm for assistance, but never take someone's arm without asking
  • Similarly, it's okay to offer help with getting refreshments or other items if that's the individual's preference
  • When a person who is blind or visually impaired is in a group of people, have each person identify themselves each time they speak
  • Do not generalize that all people who are blind or visually impaired read Braille (they don't)
  • If the person has a service animal or guide dog, do not touch or distract the animal (they're working)

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