Etiquette for Interacting with People with Disabilities

People with Disabilities

The first step in interacting with people with disabilities seems obvious: treat them as you would anyone else. People with disabilities are like everyone else; our similarities far surpass any differences. People with disabilities are people first, not conditions or diseases. For example, a person is not an epileptic but a person has epilepsy. Each person is an individual human being; any disability is secondary to who they are as a person. Avoid making statements such as “the disabled.” Rather, use “people with disabilities” or “individuals with disabilities”.


Reception Etiquette

When introduced to a person with a disability, it is appropriate to offer a handshake. People with limited hand use or who wear artificial limbs can usually shake hands. Shaking hands with the left hand is also an acceptable greeting. For those who cannot shake hands, touch the person on the shoulder or arm to welcome and acknowledge their presence.


Mobility Impairments

Treat adults as adults. Never patronize people using wheelchairs by patting them on the head or shoulder. When addressing a person who uses a wheelchair, never lean on the person’s wheelchair the chair is an extension of their personal space. When talking with a person who has a disability, look at and speak directly to that person, rather than through a companion who may be along. When talking with a person in a wheelchair for more than a few minutes, please sit down in order to place yourself at the person’s eye level.


Deaf and Hearing Impairments

To get the attention of a person with a hearing loss, tap the person on the shoulder or wave your hand. Look directly at the person and speak clearly and slowly. Speak directly to the person, not the interpreter if interpreter services are provided. Always maintain eye contact with the person with the disability, not the interpreter.

Show consideration by placing yourself facing the light source and keeping your hands away from your mouth when speaking. Keep mustaches well-trimmed. Don’t chew gum or otherwise block the area around your mouth in such a way as to prohibit lip reading. Use short sentences and don’t exaggerate lip movements. Use a normal tone of voice. Do not raise your voice unless requested. Do not hesitate to ask the hearing impaired person to repeat if you do not understand him/her. If that doesn’t work, then use a pen and paper.


Visual Impairments

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, indicate in advance when you will be moving from one place to another and let it be known when the conversation is at an end. Relax. Don’t be embarrassed if you happen to use common expressions such as “see you later” or “got to be running along.” People with disabilities use these expressions also.

Offer assistance with sensitivity and respect. If the offer to help is declined, do not insist. If the offer is accepted, listen to or ask for instructions.


Persons with Speech Impairments

Listen attentively when talking with a person who has a speech impairment and keep your manner encouraging rather than correcting. When necessary, ask short questions that require short answers. Never pretend to understand if you are having difficulty doing so. Ask the person to repeat themselves, if you cannot understand them.


Service Animals

Over 12,000 people with disabilities use service animals. Although the most familiar types of service animals are guide dogs used by people who are blind, service animals are assisting persons with other disabilities, as well. Many disabling conditions are invisible. Therefore, every person who is accompanied by a service animal may not “look” disabled. A service animal is not required to have any special certification.

According to the ADA, a service animal that has been individually trained to provide assistance or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability can accompany the person in all places of public access.

A service animal is not a pet. Do not touch the service animal, or the person it assists, without permission. Do not make noises at the service animal because it may distract the animal from doing its job.


General Concerns

Be careful not to patronize any person with a disability. Avoid making “sympathetic” comments such as “Oh isn’t it terrible she can’t see anything?”

Emphasize the uniqueness and worth of all persons rather than the differences between people. Avoid referring to a person with a disability as “one of them” instead of “one of us.” Do not exclude persons with disabilities from participating in any group, work-related, academic, or social activity because you think it may be too difficult for them to participate. When you are expecting a new person with a disability to visit, know where accessible restrooms, drinking fountains, and telephones are located. If such facilities are not available, be prepared to offer alternatives.


A Final Word

“Live and learn.” Most of us have heard that phrase. We all make mistakes. It’s a fact of life that nobody is perfect. The beauty of making mistakes is that we can learn from them. We can always improve how we interact with others.


Edited and sourced from Virginia Commenwealth University (