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Disability Etiquette

More than 17 million people with disabilities are employed in the United States, a number that will continue to grow as employers hire and retain a growing population of mature and aging workers. While the precise percentage of employees with disabilities varies among sectors, individuals with disabilities represent an important segment of every organization's diverse workforce.

A basic understanding of disability etiquette can help make employees feel more comfortable when interacting with coworkers and supervisors with disabilities and can help prevent awkward situations. Good disability etiquette can also expand business opportunities and help organizations serve customers more effectively.

What is Disability Etiquette?

Disability etiquette refers to respectful communication and interaction with people who have disabilities.

Basic Disability Etiquette

The principles of disability etiquette are fairly simple. First and foremost, rely on common sense to guide your interactions with people with disabilities and behave in the same courteous and respectful way with individuals with disabilities that you would with anyone.

Beyond that, there are several simple steps everyone can take to ensure appropriate disability etiquette:

  • Use "people first" language which recognizes that individuals are more than their disabilities.
  • Don't ask questions about a person's disability unless it is brought up by the individual.
  • If you offer assistance, wait until the offer is accepted. Then listen to or ask for instructions.
  • Speak directly to the person.
  • Don't be afraid to ask questions when you are unsure of what to do.
  • When introduced to a person with a disability, it is appropriate to offer to shake hands. People with limited hand use or who have artificial limbs can usually shake hands. (Shaking hands with the left hand is also an acceptable greeting.)
  • Treat adults as adults. Address people who have disabilities by their first names only when extending the same familiarity to all others.

Disability-Specific Etiquette

While the general disability etiquette guidelines above are applicable for individuals with all kinds of disabilities, it can sometimes be helpful to have more detailed guidance related to specific types of disabilities. Below are some disability-specific tips:

Tips for Communicating with Individuals with:

Mobility Impairments 

  • If possible, position yourself at the wheelchair user's eye level.
  • Do not lean on a wheelchair or any other assistive device.
  • Never patronize people who use wheelchairs by patting them on the head or shoulder.
  • Do not assume the individual wants to be pushed. Ask first.
  • Offer assistance with opening doors or other tasks.
  • If you call the individual, allow the phone to ring longer than usual to allow extra time for the person to reach the telephone.
  • Sit when speaking for long periods of time.
  • Offer to shake hands, even if the person is missing a hand or cannot extend it. Shaking hands is more about acknowledgement so touching a person's arm or shoulder is also acceptable.
  • Never touch or distract a service dog without first asking the owner.

Visual Impairments or Blindness 

  • When speaking, state clearly who you are and use a normal tone of voice.
  • Speak when you are approaching the individual to alert them to your presence.
  • When conversing in a group, remember to identify yourself and the person to whom you are speaking.
  • Do not attempt to hold or lead the individual without first asking. Allow the person to take your arm and walk at a normal pace, occasionally pointing out obstacles or describing your route.
  • If you are offering a seat, gently place the individual's hand on the back or arm of the chair so that the person can locate it and safely sit down.
  • Tell the person when you are leaving their presence. 
  • Be descriptive when giving directions; verbally give the person information that is visually obvious to individuals who can see. For example, if you are approaching steps, mention how many steps.
  • Never touch or distract a service dog without first asking the owner.

Speech Impairments 

  • If you do not understand something the individual says, do not pretend that you do. Ask the individual to repeat what he or she said and then repeat it back.
  • If you are having difficulty understanding the individual, consider writing as an alternative means of communicating, but first ask the individual if this is acceptable.
  • Try to ask questions which require only short answers or a nod of the head.
  • Concentrate on what the individual is saying.
  • Do not speak for the individual or attempt to finish his or her sentences.
  • Be patient. Take as much time as necessary.

Learning Disabilities 

  • Ask the individuals about the best way to communicate and offer alternatives.
  • Be prepared to repeat and rephrase questions and responses.

Cognitive Disabilities 

  • Be patient, flexible and supportive. Take time to understand the individual and make sure that he or she understands you.
  • Remember to relax. Treat the individual with dignity, respect and courtesy.
  • Listen to the individual.
  • Offer assistance but do not insist or be offended if your offer is not accepted.
  • Treat individuals age-appropriately.
  • Use short phrases.
  • Ask questions with a set of responses to choose from.
  • If you are in a public area with many distractions, consider moving to a quiet or private location.
  • Be prepared to repeat what you say, orally or in writing.
  • Offer assistance completing forms or understanding written instructions and provide extra time for decision-making. Wait for the individual to accept the offer of assistance; do not "over-assist" or be patronizing.

Deafness 

  • When using an interpreter, speak directly to the person and not to the interpreter.
  • Offer alternative means of communication when an interpreter is not present (i.e. texting, TTY, UbiDuo, written notes) or ask the individual what method he or she would prefer.
  • Gain the person's attention before starting a conversation (i.e., tap the person gently on the shoulder or arm).
  • Look directly at the individual, face the light, speak clearly in a normal tone of voice, and keep your hands away from your face. Use short, simple sentences. Avoid smoking or chewing gum.
  • If you call an individual who is hard of hearing, let the phone ring longer than usual. Speak clearly and be prepared to repeat the reason for the call and who you are.
  • If you do not have a Text Telephone (TTY), dial 711 to reach the national telecommunications relay service, which can facilitate a call between you and an individual who uses a TTY.
  • Never touch or distract a service dog without first asking the owner.

Hard of Hearing 

  • Gain the person's attention before speaking.
  • Speak in normal tone.
  • Look directly at the person when speaking.
  • If repetition is needed, use different words.
  • Never touch or distract a service dog without first asking the owner.

Other Resources

Tips On Interacting With People With Disabilities<http://www.unitedspinal.org/disability-etiquette/ >
This resource provides information on specific types of disabilities, disability etiquette, preferred language, and tips on communicating effectively with people with disabilities in the workplace.

The 10 Commandments of Communicating with People with Disabilities.<http://www.diversityshop.com/store/10comvid.html>
This Diversity World Guide combines humor and concrete information to assist employers in helping their organization become "disability-friendly" by improving communication among staff and by providing tips on how to overcome and awkwardness related to the disability "factor."

Page last updated on Tuesday, January 28, 2014

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