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Disabilities: Etiquette

Tips On Interacting With People With Disabilities

The Basics

Note: We want you to think of people who have a disability as individuals - your friends, your co-workers, your neighbors - so rather than use the amorphous group term "they" for people with disabilities, we use the pronouns "he" or "she" throughout this brochure.

Ask Before You Help

Just because someone has a disability, don't assume she needs help. If the setting is accessible, people with disabilities can usually get around fine. Adults with disabilities want to be treated as independent people. Offer assistance only if the person appears to need it. And if she does want help, ask how before you act.

Be Sensitive About Physical Contact

Some people with disabilities depend on their arms for balance. Grabbing them - even if your intention is to assist - could knock them off balance. Avoid patting a person on the head or touching his wheelchair, scooter or cane. People with disabilities consider their equipment part of their personal space.

Think Before You Speak

Always speak directly to the person with a disability, not to his companion, aide or sign language interpreter. Making small talk with a person who has a disability is great; just talk to him as you would with anyone else. Respect his privacy. If you ask about his disability, he may feel like you are treating him as a disability, not as a human being. (However, many people with disabilities are comfortable with children's natural curiosity and do not mind if a child asks them questions.)

Respond Graciously to Requests

When people who have a disability ask for an accommodation at your business, it is not a complaint. It shows they feel comfortable enough in your establishment to ask for what they need. And if they get a positive response, they will probably come back again and tell their friends about the good service they received.

Don't Make Assumptions

People with disabilities are the best judge of what they can or cannot do. Don't take decisions for them about participating in any activity. Depending on the situation, it could be a violation of the ADA to exclude people because of a presumption about their limitations.

Language Tips

  • Put the person first. Say "person with a disability" rather than "disabled person." Say "people with disabilities" rather than "the disabled." For specific disabilities, saying "person who has cerebral palsy" is usually a safe bet. Still, individuals do have their own preferences. If you are not sure what words to use, ask.
  • Avoid outdated terms like "handicapped" or "crippled." Be aware that many people with disabilities dislike jargon, euphemistic terms like "physically challenged" and "differently abled."
  • Say "wheelchair user", rather than "confined to a wheelchair" or "wheelchair bound." The wheelchair is what enables the person to get around and participate in society; it's liberating, not confining.
  • It's okay to use idiomatic expressions when talking to people with disabilities. For example, saying, "It was good to see you," and "See you later", to a person who is blind is completely acceptable; they use these expressions themselves all the time!
  • Many people who are Deaf communicate with sign language and consider themselves to be members of a cultural and linguistic minority. They refer to themselves as Deaf with a capital "D", and may be offended by the term "hearing impaired" to refer to people who have hearing loss but communicate in spoken language.
  • With any disability, avoid negative disempowering words like "victim" or "sufferer." Say "person with AIDS", instead of "AIDS victim" or "one who suffers from AIDS."

People Who Use Wheelchairs Or Have Mobility Impairments

People who use wheelchairs have different disabilities and varying abilities. Some can use their arms and hands. Some can get out of their wheelchairs and even walk for short distances.

  • Wheelchair users are people, not equipment. Don't lean over someone in a wheelchair to shake another person's hand or ask a wheelchair user to hold coats. Setting your drink on the desktop attached to someone's wheelchair is a definite no-no.
  • Don't push or touch a person's wheelchair; it's part of her personal space. If you help someone down a curb without waiting for instructions, you may dump her out of the chair. You may detach the chair's parts if you lift it by the handles or the footrest.
  • Keep the ramps and wheelchair-accessible doors to your building unlocked and unblocked. Under the ADA, displays should not be in front of entrances, wastebaskets should not be in the middle of aisles and boxes should not be stored on ramps.
  • Be aware of wheelchair users' reach limits. Place as many items as possible within their grasp. Make sure that there is a clear path of travel to shelves and display racks.
  • When talking to a wheelchair user, grab your own chair and sit at her level. If that's not possible, stand at a slight distance, so that she isn't straining her neck to make eye contact with you.
  • If the service counter at your place of business is too high for a wheelchair user to see over, step around it to provide service.
  • If your building has different routes through it, be sure that signs direct wheelchair users to the most accessible ways around the facility. People who walk with a cane or crutches also need to know the easiest was to get around a place, but stairs may be easier for them than a ramp. Ensure that security guards and receptionists at your business can answer questions about the most accessible way around the building.
  • If the nearest public restroom is not accessible or is located on an inaccessible floor, allow the person in a wheelchair to use a private or employees. restroom that is accessible.
  • People who use canes or crutches need their arms to balance themselves, so never grab them. Mobility-impaired people may lean on a door for support as they open it. Pushing them or quickly opening the door may cause them to fall. Even pulling out or pushing in a chair may present a problem. Always ask before offering help.
  • If you offer a seat to a mobility impaired person, keep in mind that chairs with arms are easier for some people to use.
  • Falls are a big problem for people with mobility impairments. Be sure to set out adequate warning signs after washing floors. Also put out mats on rainy or snowy days to keep the floors as dry as possible. (Make sure they don't bunch up and make the floor impassable for wheelchair users.)
  • People who are not visibly mobility impaired may have needs related to their mobility. For example, a person with a respiratory or heart condition may have trouble walking long distances or walking quickly. Be sure that your museum, hotel or department store has ample benches for people to set and rest on.

People Who Are Blind Or Visually Impaired

People who are blind know how to orient themselves and get around on the street. They are competent to travel unassisted, though they may use a cane or a guide dog. A person may have a visual impairment that is not obvious. Be prepared to offer assistance - for example, in reading - when asked.

  • Identify yourself before you make physical contact with a person who is blind. Tell him your name - and your role if it's appropriate, such as security guard, usher, caseworker, receptionist or fellow student. And be sure to introduce him to others who are in the group, so that he's not excluded.
  • If a new customer is blind or visually impaired, offer him a tour of your business.
  • People who are blind need their arms for balance, so offer your arm - don't take his - if he needs to be guided. (However, it is appropriate to guide a blind person's hand to a banister or the back of a chair to help direct him to a stairway or a seat.)
  • If the person has a guide dog, walk on the side opposite the dog. As you are walking, describe the setting, noting any obstacles, such as stairs ("up" or "down") or a big crack in the sidewalk. Other hazards include: revolving doors, half-opened filing cabinets or doors, and objects protruding from the wall at head level such as hanging plants or lamps. If you are going to give a warning, be specific. Hollering "Look out!" does not tell the person if he should stop, run, duck or jump.
  • If you are giving directions, give specific, non-visual information. Rather than say, "Go to your right when you reach the office supplies," which assumes the person knows where the office supplies are, say, "Walk forward to the end of this aisle and make a full right."
  • If you need to leave a person who is blind, let him know. And leave him near a wall, table, or some other landmark. The middle of a room will seem like the middle of nowhere to him.
  • Don't touch the person's cane or guide dog. The dog is working and needs to concentrate. The cane is part of the individual's personal space. If the person puts the cane down, don't move it. Let him know if it's in the way.
  • Offer to read written information - such as the menu, merchandise labels or bank statements - to customers who are blind. Count out change so that they know which bills are which.
  • If you serve food to a person who is blind, let him know where everything is on the plate according to the clock orientation (twelve o'clock is furthest from them, six o'clock is nearest). Some patrons may ask you to cut their food; this can be done in a restaurant's kitchen before the meal is served.
  • A person who is visually impaired may need written material in large print. Clear print with appropriate spacing is just as important as the type size. Labels and signs should be clearly lettered in contrasting colors. It is easiest for most people with vision problems to read bold white letters on black background.
  • Good lighting is very important, but it shouldn't be too bright. In fact, very shiny paper or walls can produce a glare which disturbs people's eyes.
  • If people who are blind or are visually impaired regularly use your facility as customers or employees, inform them about any physical changes such as rearranged furniture, equipment or other items that have been moved. Keep walkways clear of obstructions.

People Who Are Deaf Or Hard of Hearing

American Sign Language (ASL) is an entirely different language from English, with a syntax all its own. Speech reading (lip reading) is difficult for people who are Deaf if their first language is ASL because the majority of sounds in English are formed inside the mouth, and it's hard to speech read a second language. People who are hard of hearing, however, communicate in English. They use some hearing, but may rely on amplification and/or seeing the speaker's lips to communicate effectively.

  • When the exchange of information is complex - such as during a job interview or doctor's visit or when reporting a crime - the most effective way to communicate with a person who is Deaf is through a qualified sign-language interpreter. For a simple interaction - such as ordering in a restaurant or registering for a hotel room - writing back and forth is usually okay.
  • Follow the person's cues to find out if she prefers sign language, gesturing, writing or speaking. If you have trouble understanding the speech of a person who is Deaf or hard of hearing, let her know.
  • When using a sign-language interpreter, look directly at the person who is Deaf, and maintain eye contact to be polite. Talk directly to the person ("What would you like?"), rather than to the interpreter (" Ask her what she'd like.").
  • People who are Deaf need to be included in the decision-making process for issues that affect them; don't decide for them.
  • Before speaking to a person who is Deaf or hard of hearing, make sure that you get her attention. Depending on the situation, you can wave your hand, tap her on the shoulder or flicker the lights.
  • Rephrase, rather than repeat, sentences that the person doesn't understand.
  • When talking, face the person. A quiet, well-lit room is most conducive to effective communication. If you are in front of the light source - such as a window - with your back to it, the glare may obscure your face and make it difficult for the person who is hard of hearing to speech read.
  • Speak clearly. Most people who are hard of hearing count on watching a person's lips as they speak to help them understand. Avoid chewing gum, smoking or obscuring your mouth with your hand while speaking.
  • There is no need to shout at a person who is Deaf or hard of hearing. If the person uses a hearing aid, it will be calibrated to normal voice levels; your shout will just sound distorted.
  • People who are Deaf (and some who are hard of hearing or have speech disabilities) make and receive telephone calls with the assistance of a device called a TTY (short for teletypewriter; also called a TDD). A TTY is a small device with a keyboard, a paper printer or a visual display screen and acoustic couplers (for the telephone receiver).
  • When a TTY user calls a business that does not have a TTY, she places the call through her state's relay service. Likewise, a business that does not have a TTY can reach a customer who is a TTY user through the relay service.
  • If you receive a relay call, the operator will identify it as such. Please do not hang up; this is the way that people who are Deaf are able to place an order at your pizza parlor, call your store to find out what hours you are open, or make a reservation at your restaurant.

People With Speech Disabilities

A person who has had a stroke, is severely hard of hearing or has a stammer or other type of speech disability may be difficult to understand.

  • Give the person your full attention. Don't interrupt or finish the person's sentences. If you have trouble understanding, don't nod. Just ask him to repeat. In most cases the person won't mind and will appreciate your effort to hear what he has to say.
  • If, after trying, you still cannot understand the person, ask him to write it down or to suggest another way of facilitating communication.
  • A quiet environment makes communication easier.
  • Don't tease or laugh at a person with a speech disability. The ability to communicate effectively and to be taken seriously is important to all of us.

Persons of Short Stature

There are 200 diagnosed types of growth-related disorders that can cause dwarfism and that result in the person being 4 feet 10 inches or less in height. Average-size people often underestimate the abilities of dwarfs. For an adult, being treated as a cute and child-like can be a tough obstacle.

  • Be aware of having necessary items within the person's reach to the maximum extent possible.
  • Be aware that persons of short stature count on being able to use equipment that is at their height. Be sensitive about not using lower telephones, bank counters and urinals if they are in limited supply.
  • As with people who have other disabilities, never pat or kiss a person of short stature on the head.
  • Communication can be easier when people are at the same level. Persons of short stature have different preferences. You might kneel to be at the person's level; stand back so you can make eye contact without the person straining her neck (this can be hard to do in a crowded room); or sit in a chair. Act natural and follow the person's cues.

People With Cerebral Palsy

As a result of injury to the central nervous system, people with cerebral palsy (CP) have difficult controlling their muscles.

  • Follow the tips above for interacting with persons who have speech disabilities.
  • Many people with CP have slurred speech and involuntary body movements. Your impulse may be to discount what they have to say, based on their appearance. Monitor your responses and interact with the person as you would with anyone else.
  • A person who may appear to be drunk, sick or have a medical emergency might in fact have CP or another disability. Get the facts before acting on your first impression, whether the situation is business, social or law enforcement.

Tourette Syndrome

People with Tourette Syndrome make vocalizations or gestures such as tics that they cannot control. A small percentage of people with Tourette Syndrome involuntarily say ethnic slurs or obscene words. An employee or other person with Tourette Syndrome will benefit from the understanding and acceptance of co-workers and others.

  • If a person with Tourette makes vocalizations during a conversation, simply wait for her to finish, then calmly continue.
  • The more the person tries to contain these urges, the more the urges build up. It may be helpful for a person with Tourette to have the option to leave the meeting or conversation temporarily to release the build-up in a private place.

Epilepsy (Seizure Disorders)

Epilepsy is a neurological condition characterized by seizures which happen when the electrical system of the brain malfunctions. The seizures may be convulsive, or the person may appear to be in a trance. During complex partial seizures, the person may work or make other movements while he is, in effect, unconscious.

  • If a person has a seizure, you cannot do anything to stop it. If he has fallen, be sure his head is protected and wait for the seizure to end.
  • When a seizure has ended, the person may feel disoriented and embarrassed. Try to ensure that he has privacy to collect himself.
  • Be aware that beepers and strobe lights can trigger seizures in some people.

Cognitive Disabilities: Traumatic (or Acquired) Brain Injury

People with traumatic brain injury have had damage to the brain usually as the result of trauma, such as an accident or stroke.

  • Some of the factors that affect persons with learning disabilities also apply to persons with traumatic brain injury.
  • People with brain injury may have a loss of muscle control or mobility which is not obvious. For example, a person may not be able to sign her name, even though she can move her hand.
  • A person with a brain injury may have poor social skills, such as making inappropriate comments. She may not understand social cues or "get" indications that she has offended someone. In their frustration to understand, or to get her own ideas across, she may seem pushy. All of these behaviors arise as a result of the injury.
  • A person with a brain injury may be unable to follow directions due to poor short-term memory or poor directional orientation. She may ask to be accompanied.
  • If you are not sure that the person understands you, ask if she would like you to write down what you were saying.
  • The person may have trouble concentrating or organizing her thoughts, especially in an overstimulating environment, like a crowded movie theater or transportation terminal. Be patient. You might suggest going somewhere with few distractions.

A Final Word

People with disabilities are individuals with families, jobs, hobbies, likes and dislikes, problems and joys. While the disability is an integral part of who they are, it alone does not define them. Don't make them into disability heroes or victims. Treat them as individuals.


Not all disabilities are apparent. A person may make a request or act in a way that may seem strange to you. That behavior may be disability related.

For example, you may give seemingly simple directions to someone, but the person asks you to write them down. He may have a learning disability that makes written communication easier for him. Or someone may ask you not to use spray-cleaning products on your restaurant tables while she's sitting there. She may have asthma or multiple chemical sensitivity.

Even though these disabilities are hidden, they are real. Please respect the person's need and request whenever possible.

Cohen, J. Disability Etiquette Tips On Interacting With People With Disabilities. [Brochure]. Jackson Heights, NY: Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association