When dealing with people with disabilities, it is important to apply the same rules of etiquette and good manners that you would with anyone. There are, however, times when specific issues arise for people that are related to their disabilities for which some simple guidelines and techniques will facilitate your interactions and ensure that everyone involved is comfortable and everyone’s needs are met.
Since each individual is different, these suggestions will not be universally applicable, but should cover the majority of situations. For instance, one current practice is to refer to a person with a disability as a person first, then specify the disability; e.g., “person with a disability” vs. “disabled person”, but there is no hard and fast rule. Your ear will usually guide you well in making a choice; for instance, saying “person with a visual impairment” sounds better than “visually impaired person”, but “person who is blind” doesn’t do as well as “blind person”. Deaf people are often an exception to the current practice of “person first” language, since they consider Deaf culture to be distinct and significant in its own right.
It is important to avoid such language as “wheelchair-bound”, as a wheelchair is liberating, not encumbering; you may want to say instead “person who uses a wheelchair”, or describe someone as a “wheelchair user”. Some people, however, consider these distinctions silly or even condescending, so the possibility exists to give offense no matter what language you choose. In that case, you can only follow the person’s preferences as you go forward, and not take it personally.
The following guidelines should facilitate interaction and minimize giving offense unintentionally:
When talking with a person with a disability, speak directly to that person rather than through a companion or sign language interpreter. Speak respectfully, but as naturally and casually as the situation warrants.
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, and shaking hands with the left hand is an acceptable greeting. People with a visual impairment will generally extend their hand when being introduced, so please feel comfortable in grasping it as you would with anyone under the same circumstances.
When meeting a person who is visually impaired, always identify yourself and others who may be with you. When conversing in a group, remember to identify the person to whom you are speaking so that blind persons can participate in the flow without confusion. When you enter a room already occupied by a person who is visually impaired, greet the person and identify yourself unless you are already well acquainted and are sure that the person will recognize your voice. When departing from an area, be sure to let the person know that you’re leaving so they won’t continue talking after you’re gone.
Blind people who are accompanied by a guide dog or who use a white cane are generally very capable of navigating their surroundings. However, when entering unfamiliar settings it is courteous to describe where you are and inquire if they would like assistance. In that case, wait until the offer is accepted, then listen to or ask for instructions. Ask whether they would like to take your arm, and if so, offer your arm by extending it slightly and touching the person’s arm or hand with your elbow so they can make contact as loosely or firmly as is comfortable for them. Describe your surroundings as you proceed, especially obstacles to be circumvented, uneven pavement, and stairs as you approach them. It is also helpful to indicate what activities or uses the surroundings have so that they can make a choice about what they want to do. Blind people often appreciate aesthetic descriptions of surroundings as well as practical ones, so feel free to share your observations. It is also enjoyable to point out opportunities for tactile experience, such as interesting architectural features or foliage.
When offering a chair to a person with a visual disability, put your hand on the back or arm of the chair and tap it lightly to indicate by sound where the chair is, while allowing the person to slide their hand down your arm until it makes contact with the chair. Briefly describe the surroundings, such as the size of the table and whether there are other people seated nearby, and any amenities and exits in the vicinity.
Treat adults as adults. Use age-appropriate language, and address people who have disabilities by their first names only when extending the same familiarity to all others. Of course, never patronize people who use wheelchairs by patting them on the head or shoulder, or move the wheelchair for them without the person’s request that you do so. Remember too that blind people, wheelchair users, and persons with intellectual disabilities don’t need for you to speak loudly unless they have a hearing impairment as well. This is often done unconsciously by people who are unaccustomed to interacting with a diverse community.
Leaning on or hanging on to a person’s wheelchair is similar to leaning on or hanging on to a person’s body and is generally considered annoying. The chair is part of the personal body space of the individual who uses it.
When speaking with a person who uses a wheelchair or a person who uses crutches, place yourself at eye level in front of the person to facilitate the conversation. If possible, sit in a chair beside or opposite the person using a wheelchair.
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. If necessary, ask short questions that require short answers, a nod, or shake of the head. Never pretend to understand if you are having difficulty doing so. Instead, repeat what you have understood and allow the person to respond; the response will clue you in and guide your understanding. Individuals with severe speech impediments will often spell words for you if it is obvious that you’re not understanding them.
To get the attention of a deaf or hard of hearing person, try to establish visual contact by entering their field of vision or waving your hand. Some deaf people don’t mind if you tap them on the shoulder to get their attention, but others find it startling or even an unwelcome touch. If you need to get someone’s attention indoors, flipping the light off and on is appreciated. Of course, knowing some American Sign Language is a wonderful way to make a deaf person feel welcome, even if you only know enough for greetings and questions about how you can be of assistance. Otherwise, many deaf people read lips to a greater or lesser degree. Look directly at the person and speak clearly and expressively and at a normal rate to determine if the person can read your lips, as not all people who are deaf can do so. For those who do lip read, be sensitive to their needs by placing yourself so that you face the light source and keep hands, cigarettes, and food away from your mouth when speaking. Even skilled lip readers only pick out about a third of spoken words, so use facial and hand expressions to assist in getting the meaning across. Take as long as is necessary to ensure that you both understand each other; getting frustrated and saying “never mind” is very rude, as it implies that the conversation isn’t important to you. Similarly, most deaf people will let you know when they don’t understand you, and will patiently work to do so; it is tempting for them to simply nod and smile if they’re not getting your meaning, but they realize that doing so implies that what you said isn’t important to them. It is generally acceptable to use paper and pen to communicate, and texting is a good way to establish contact, but some deaf people prefer not to do so. Remember too that some deaf people do not speak English, and use American Sign Language for all communications, so lip-reading, writing, or texting are not options for them.
When working with people with learning and intellectual development disabilities, try to give one instruction at a time, as it can be difficult for some people to remember steps in the future while working on the ones in the present. Individuals who have conditions such as dyslexia or who are on the autism spectrum gather and express information in formats that work best for them, so be open to presenting information either visually or aurally as the case may be. Folks on the autism spectrum often have preferences about whether they want to be approached or whether they would like to initiate contact, so be respectful and receptive to each person’s wishes.
Relax, and don’t hesitate to use accepted, common expressions such as “see you later,” or “did you hear about that?” that seem to relate to a person’s disability. Don’t be afraid to ask questions when you’re unsure of what to do; people with disabilities are accustomed to offering guidance to people unfamiliar with their conditions, and are happy to help. They will appreciate your willingness to engage with them, and will not be looking for mistakes on your part.
Updated January 9, 2018