Disability Etiquette

Changing Attitudes

People with disabilities are people first. Their disability should come second. Yes, it is a part of them, but it is not the most important aspect.

People with disabilities are like you and me. They may look, move, or act differently sometimes, but they strive towards similar goals. They do not want to be treated differently, but instead they want the same things in life that we do … to be loved, appreciated, respected and productive.

Recent changes in laws, policies, and attitudes have opened opportunities for people with disabilities to pursue education, recreation, and employment in the mainstream of community life.

Increasingly we find ourselves in situations involving people with disabilities, and we would like to behave appropriately. By working together to create positive attitudes toward people with disabilities we can create a better society–and that is a positive step for everyone!

Language–A Powerful Tool

“Handicapped man confined to wheelchair…” “Girl stricken with cerebral palsy…” Words and phrases such as these help to shape incorrect perceptions of people with disabilities. Negative attitudes are often the greatest barrier for people with disabilities to overcome.

Even the word “handicap” itself is considered insulting by some–and should be avoided. “Handicap” is derived from “cap in hand,” a phrase associated with beggars and begging. When speaking or writing, always refer to the person first and not his or her disability. Do not say that someone is “afflicted with blindness;” instead refer to “a person with blindness.”

Be sensitive when choosing words. Grouping individuals together as “the mentally retarded” or “the handicapped” puts the focus on the disability, not on the individual and his or her dignity as a human being. “People with disabilities” or “individuals who use wheelchairs” places people first.

The following are some acceptable words that are more respectful and descriptive of the conditions which challenge some individuals:

  • blindness
  • cerebral palsy
  • communicative disorder
  • congenital disability
  • deafness
  • developmental disability
  • disability
  • epilepsy
  • hearing impairment
  • learning disability
  • person with a disability
  • people with paraplegia
  • physically disabled
  • seizure disorder
  • unable to speak
  • visual impairment
  • wheelchair-user

The Importance of Interaction

Sometimes it is difficult to know what to say or how to act with a person with a disability. The following are suggestions for interacting with people with disabilities:

1. Maintain eye contact

2. Talk directly to the person with the disability, even if he or she is using an interpreter. Even if parents or friends are present, encourage the person with the disability to express his her own opinions.

3. Ask if assistance is needed, rather than assuming it is.

4. Use a normal tone of voice. If the person cannot hear or understand you, he or she will let you know. Raising your voice causes more confusion.

5. If you do not understand what the person with the disability is saying, you should say so. This will be appreciated. Ask the person to repeat or use an alternative phrase if necessary.

6. When talking with a person who has a mental disability, speak simply, not loudly. Remember that simple language is not childish language.

7. Be careful not to assume that a person with one disability also has others. A person in a wheelchair does not necessarily have a mental disability, nor is a person who is blind likely to have a hearing impairment.

8. Be sure to make public events accessible by considering the needs of people with disabilities when planning these events.

9. When first meeting a person with a severe loss of vision, always identify yourself and introduce anyone else who might be present.

10. When offering a seat to a person with a visual impairment, place a person’s hand on the back or arm of the seat.

11. When talking with a person using a wheelchair, don’t lean on the wheelchair. The chair is considered part of the body space of the person who uses it.

12. Do not try to avoid using common idioms like “see,” “walk” or “hear” around people with disabilities. Being overly conscious of a person’s disability can cause discomfort and awkwardness.

*This information is from a brochure distributed by the Indiana Governor’s Planning Council for People with Disabilities.