Disability Etiquette: Tips for Interacting with Individuals with Disabilities

As you pray that God will use you to make a difference in the lives of the students who are coming to campus for our Luke 14 Fun Day on the Hill, please read this page and watch the video.  


One in five Americans has a disability. There is a good chance that you interact every day, perhaps without even knowing it, with somebody who has a disability. Sometimes people are uncomfortable around people with disabilities because they don’t know how to act or what to say. Fear of the unknown and lack of knowledge about how to act can lead to uneasiness when meeting a person who has a disability. The information on this page is for anyone—with or without a disability—who wants to interact more effectively with people with disabilities. It is a straightforward orientation to the basic rules of etiquette and language that can lay the foundation for respectful and courteous interaction with people with disabilities.

Practicing disability etiquette is an easy way to make people with disabilities feel welcome. You don’t have to feel awkward when dealing with a person who has a disability. This page provides some basic tips for you to follow. And if you are ever unsure about what to do or say with a person who has a disability, just ask!

Did You Know That There Are...

  • 21.2 million (8.2 percent) people in the U.S. with a condition limiting basic physical activities, such as walking, climbing stairs, reaching, lifting, or carrying.
  • 12.4 million (4.8 percent) people in the U.S. with a physical, mental, or emotional condition causing difficulty in learning, remembering, or concentrating.
  • 9.3 million people in the U.S. (3.6 percent) with a sensory disability involving sight or hearing.
  • 6.8 million (2.6 percent) people in the U.S. with a physical, mental, or emotional condition causing difficulty dressing, bathing, or getting around at home. [Disability facts based on 2000 U.S. Census]

Top Ten Rules for Communicating with People with Disabilities

  1. When talking with a person with a disability, speak directly to that person rather than through a companion or sign language interpreter.
  2. When introduced to a person with a disability, it is appropriate to offer to shake hands. People with limited hand use or who wear an artificial limb can usually shake hands. For those who cannot shake hands, touch the person on the shoulder or arm to welcome and acknowledge their presence.
  3. When meeting a person with a visual impairment, always identify yourself and others who may be with you.
  4. If you offer assistance, wait until the offer is accepted. Then listen to or ask for instructions.
  5. Treat adults as adults. Address people who have disabilities by their first names only when extending that same familiarity to all others present.
  6. Leaning or hanging on a person's wheelchair is similar to leaning or hanging on a person and is generally considered annoying.
  7. Listen attentively when you're talking with a person who has difficulty speaking. Be patient and wait for the person to finish, rather than correcting or speaking for the person.
  8. When speaking with a person in a wheelchair, place yourself at eye level in front of the person to facilitate the conversation.
  9. To get the attention of a person who is hearing impaired, tap the person on the shoulder or wave your hand. Look directly at the person and speak clearly, slowly and expressively to establish if the person can read your lips.
  10. Relax. Don't be embarrassed if you happen to use accepted, common expressions, such as, "See you later," or "Did you hear about this" that seem to relate to the person's disability. Anyone can make mistakes. Offer an apology if you forget some courtesy. Keep a sense of humor and a willingness to communicate.

General Information

Attitude and Approach

As you meet people with various physical disabilities, you may be apprehensive about how you should behave towards that individual. Every person is different and some will find it easy to work and socialize with such individuals, whereas others will find it difficult adjusting. Always remember that a person with a disability is a person. He or she is like anyone else, except for the special limitations of their disability. People with disabilities prefer that you focus on their abilities not their disabilities. Appreciate the person first. Attitudes and behaviors are the most difficult barriers for people with disabilities to overcome.


If you do not understand someone because they have difficulty with their speech, or they use some form of communication aid, please do not assume that they do not understand. If you have difficulty understanding them, then admit it, and try to get someone to translate for you. People in such situations will not get upset if you are honest, and in time, you will learn to understand what they are saying.

Hidden Disabilities

Not all disabilities are apparent. A person may have trouble following a conversation, may not respond when you call or wave, or may say or do something that seems inappropriate. The person may have a hidden disability, such as low vision, a seizure disorder, hearing loss, a learning disability, a head injury, mental illness, or a health condition. These are just a few of the many different types of hidden disabilities. Don't make assumptions about the person or the disability. Be open-minded.

How to Help

  • Introduce yourself and offer assistance.
  • Don't be offended if your help is not needed.
  • Ask how you can help and listen for instructions.
  • Be courteous, but NOT condescending.
  • Assist individuals with disabilities when necessary or do not discourage their active participation.
  • Allow a person DIGNITY to do what he or she wants to do for him or herself.

Be Yourself

Treat people with disabilities with the same respect and consideration that you have for everyone else. Treat the person as an individual, not as a disability. Don't assume that "disability" is all that person can talk about or is interested in. Find a topic of small talk the way you would with anyone. Use a normal voice when extending a verbal welcome. Do not raise your voice unless requested. As in any new situation, everyone will be more comfortable if you relax.

Terminology Tips

  • People with disabilities are not conditions or diseases. They are individual human beings.  For example, a person is not an epileptic but rather a person who has epilepsy.
  • First and foremost they are people. Only secondarily do they have one or more disabling conditions. Hence, they prefer to be referred to in print or broadcast media as People with Disabilities.
  • Make reference to the person first, then the disability, i.e., "a person with a disability" rather than a "disabled person." However, the latter is acceptable in the interest of conserving print space or saving announcing time. Use an adjective as a description, not a category or priority, i.e., "the architect in the wheelchair" rather than "the wheelchair architect."
  • In any story, article, announcement or advertisement, "people with disabilities" should be used either exclusively or, at a minimum, as the initial reference. Subsequent references can use the terms "person with a disability" or "individuals with disabilities" for grammatical or narrative reasons. In conclusion, the appropriate and preferred initial reference is "people with disabilities."

General Rules of Etiquette for Communicating with Persons with Specific Disabilities

Hearing Impairments         

  • Let the person take the lead in establishing the communication mode, such as lip-reading, sign language, or writing notes.
  • Face the person when you are speaking.
  • Don't chew gum, smoke, bite a pencil, or cover your mouth while talking - it makes speech difficult to understand!
  • Rephrase sentences or substitute words rather than repeat yourself again and again.
  • Speak clearly and at a normal voice level.
  • Communicate in writing, if necessary.
  • Move away from noisy areas or the source of noise - loud air conditioning, loud music, TV and radio.
  • Don't stand with bright light (window, sun) behind you - glare makes it difficult to see your face.
  • Get the hearing-impaired person's attention and face in full view before talking.

Visual Impairments

  • When greeting the person, identify yourself and introduce others who may be present.
  • Be descriptive. You may have to help orient people with visual impairments and let them know what's coming up. If they are walking, tell them if they have to step up or step down, let them know if the door is to their right or left, and warn them of possible hazards.
  • You don't have to speak loudly to people with visual impairments. Most of them can hear just fine.
  • Offer to read written information for a person with a visual impairment, when appropriate.
  • If you are asked to guide a person with a visual impairment, offer your arm instead of grabbing hers.
  • Don't leave the person without excusing yourself first.
  • Don't pet or distract a guide dog. The dog is responsible for its owner's safety and is always working. It is not a pet.

Speech Impairments

  • Listen patiently. Don't complete sentences for the person unless he or she looks to you for help.
  • Don't pretend you understand what a person with a speech disability says just to be polite.
  • Ask the person to write down a word if you're not sure what he or she is saying.
  • Be prepared for various devices or techniques used to enhance or augment speech. Don't be afraid to communicate with someone who uses an alphabet board or a computer with synthesized speech.

Mobility Impairments

  • Try sitting or crouching down to the approximate height of people in wheelchairs or scooters when you talk to them.
  • Don't lean on wheelchairs unless you have permission - it's their personal space.
  • Be aware of what is accessible and not accessible to people in wheelchairs.
  • Give a push only when asked.

Cognitive Disability

  • Use very clear, specific language.
  • Be patient. Allow the person time to tell or show you what he or she wants.
  • Condense lengthy directions into steps.
  • Use short, concise instructions.
  • Present verbal information at a relatively slow pace, with appropriate pauses for processing time and with repetition if necessary.
  • Provide cues to help with transitions (e.g. "In five minutes we¹ll be going to lunch.")
  • Reinforce information with pictures or other visual images.
  • Use modeling, rehearsing, and role-playing.
  • Use concrete rather than abstract language.
  • Limit the use of sarcasm or subtle humor.
  • If you are not sure what to do or say, just ask the person what he or she needs.

Wheelchair Etiquette

As written by Disability Awareness, The Rehabilitation Center, Ottawa Ontario - 613.739.5324
  • Always ask the person using the wheelchair if he or she would like assistance BEFORE you help. It may not be needed or wanted.
  • Don't hang or lean on a person's wheelchair because it is part of that person's personal body space.
  • Speak directly to the person in the wheelchair, not to someone nearby as if the person in the wheelchair did not exist.
  • If conversation lasts more than a few minutes, consider sitting down or kneeling to get yourself on the same level.
  • Don't demean or patronize the person by patting him or her on the head.
  • Give clear directions, including distance, weather conditions and physical obstacles that may hinder the person's travel.
  • Don't classify persons who use wheelchairs as sick. Wheelchairs are used for a variety of non-contagious disabilities.
  • When a person using a wheelchair "transfers" out of the wheelchair to a chair, toilet, car or bed, do not move the wheelchair out of reaching distance.
  • Be aware of the person's capabilities. Some users can walk with aid and use wheelchairs to save energy and move quickly.
  • It is okay to use terms like "running along" when speaking to a person who uses a wheelchair. The person is likely to express things the same way. Don't discourage children from asking questions about the wheelchair.
  • Don't assume that using a wheelchair is in itself a tragedy. It is a means of freedom that allows the person to move about independently.
SOURCE: Unless otherwise indicated, the information on this page is duplicated with permission by St. Mary's Commission for People with Disabilities, Leonardtown, MD  20650