Interacting with People with Disabilities

An individual with a disability is a human being. It's as simple as that. Fear is one of the main reasons we are reluctant to interact with people with disabilities. Do not let fear of making a mistake, fear of saying the wrong thing, or fear of the unknown make you reluctant to interact with people with disabilities. The greatest mistake we can make is to exclude people with disabilities because of those fears.

Make a mistake? Apologize, correct the error, learn and move on.

RELAX! It's okay to say to a person who is blind, "I'll see you later," or ask a person in a wheelchair to go for a walk. It's part of our everyday language and not always taken literally.

Here is some basic etiquette for interacting with people with disabilities:

  • Always be aware of barriers, both permanent and temporary.
  • When talking to a person with a disability, speak directly to the person. If there is a companion or interpreter present, always direct your comments to the person with the disability.
  • Use "person first" language such as "person with a disability." Avoid terms such as disabled, handicapped, and impaired. When we describe individuals by their medical diagnosis we devalue and disrespect them as individuals; a disability is what someone has, not who they are.
  • Respect confidentiality if someone discloses their disability to you.
  • Never assume that a person with a disability needs your assistance. It is always polite to offer your assistance, but once you have offered, wait for a reply before acting. If the person accepts your offer, wait to be directed. Do not be offended if your offer, of assistance is not accepted; many persons with disabilities would rather do things for themselves whenever possible.
  • Do not assume that a person with a physical disability also has a cognitive disability.
  • Never lean on a person's wheelchair. A chair is often considered an extension of the body and leaning on it is the same as leaning directly on the person. If you bump into a person's wheelchair, say, "Excuse me." When talking to a person in a wheelchair, try to sit so that you are at eye level.
  • When interacting with a person who has difficulty with attention or short-term memory, face the person and maintain eye contact. Use short sentences and give instructions in increments.
  • Assistive devices (canes, crutches, wheelchairs, walkers, etc.) should be respected as extensions of the person or as personal property. Do not move or play with them without permission from the user.
  • When talking with a person who is blind or has a visual impairment, always identify yourself at the beginning of the conversation and remember to inform the person when you are ending the conversation, changing location, or leaving the area. Never hold the person's arm while walking; let her hold your arm. This will allow her to walk slightly behind you and get a sense of what to expect from the motion of your body. Ask if the person would like verbal clues as to what is ahead when you approach steps, curbs, or other barriers.
  • Never pet or call to a service animal when the animal is in a harness. The harness tells the animal that it is time to work. When the animal is at rest or out of harness, you may ask the owner for permission to pet it.
  • When talking with an adult with a cognitive or psychiatric disability, do not speak s you would to a child. Use age-appropriate language and mannerisms. Also, do not assume that because a person may not speak, that they are unable to understand or hear you.
  • When speaking with a person who is Deaf or has a hearing loss, always look directly at the person. Keep your mouth and face free of hands or shadows. Do not speak with exaggerated slowness or with exaggerated facial expressions. Also, do not shout; an increase in volume may actually make it more difficult for the person to understand you.
  • If you are speaking with a person with impaired speech, listen carefully and repeat what you've heard. Don't pretend to understand if you don't, and don't give up and say, "Never mind, it wasn't important." That tells the person you're talking to that you don't value his input enough to continue the conversation. Also allow more time for a conversation with a person with a speech impairment; do not rush him or try to finish his sentences.
  • Relax. People with disabilities are people, relax and be yourself when communicating with someone who has a disability. Treat others as you would wish to be treated.



Civic Engagement