Disability Etiquette: A Simple Guide to Respectful and Courteous Communication
As more people with disabilities are entering the workforce or just having more access to restaurants and other venues, it’s important that everyone understand some basic disability etiquette.
Some people ask the question: why is proper disability etiquette important?
The main point is to make sure there is respectful communication between all human beings. The idea is to make our interactions more effective and to make employees, customers and clients more comfortable.
Disability etiquette begins with the understanding that people with disabilities are not burdens on society or inconveniences. They are neither heroes nor victims.
Instead, they are competent adults who just have a few additional challenges to overcome as they live their lives.
Disability etiquette isn’t just following a bunch of rules. Or memorizing all kinds of guidelines and tips. It all boils down to common sense and courtesy. To treat other people the way you would want to be treated.
Disability Etiquette Training
Some companies offer disability etiquette training. This can help employees understand how to communicate with people with disabilities. It also gives them insight into how people with disabilities move around, tolerate social interactions or changes in their environments, and perceive the world around them.
The training will make everyone more comfortable in their interactions with coworkers, clients or customers who have disabilities. This allows people to focus on the work that needs to get done or the service that needs to be provided and to enjoy greater productivity and working together.
Communicating with Persons with Disabilities
Not every person’s disability is the same. While the person’s disability may alter the way you communicate with them, there are some basic principles that apply to all.
People First Language
The first is the idea of people first language. The principle behind people first language is to focus on the person, not the disability.
In other words, you would describe someone as a person with paraplegia, not a paraplegic. Or you indicate someone who walks with a cane, not someone who is a cripple.
Another point to keep in mind is to avoid words with negative connotations. These would include handicapped, deformed, suffering from, maimed, victim, and retarded.
For example, you would refer to a coworker as someone who uses a wheelchair, not someone who is confined to a wheelchair.
As you get to know the person, follow their lead on how they describe themselves. Some prefer the phrase “disabled person.” Others use “person with disabilities.”
Tips for Better Communication with People with Disabilities
When you first meet a person with a disability, it’s appropriate to hold out your hand to offer a handshake. If they can’t shake your hand, they’ll tell you. Be prepared that they might offer you their left hand instead.
If you are speaking with a person accompanied by a caregiver or interpreter, always speak directly to the person. Don’t speak about them to the attendant as if they aren’t there.
When speaking about people with disabilities, focus on the person. Describe them as students, parents, business owners, or athletes. Focus on their achievements and personal qualities, not their disabilities.
On the other hand, don’t be afraid to use common expressions such as “see you later” or “I have to run.” Most people with disabilities use these phrases and won’t be offended if you do as well.
Except in rare instances or you know the person extremely well, never touch a person with a disability. Some might have balance issues and a simple touch might cause them to fall. In other cases, your touch could trigger a muscle spasm.
The same does not touch rule applies to wheelchairs, assistive devices such as canes or crutches, and service animals. If you have a need to move a device out of the way, ask first.
How to Ask Someone About their Disability
Naturally, you will be curious about the person’s disability. But resist the urge to ask questions. The person might not want to talk about it. Or they
might just prefer to be treated like a person, not a disease or disability. You won’t go wrong by respecting their privacy.
However, if you need information about their disability, then it’s appropriate to ask. For example, if you are the person responsible for setting up their workspace, then asking about how to accommodate the disability is appropriate. It would be rude, though, to ask if they’ve had the disability from birth.
A good rule of thumb is it’s fine to ask if the information is relevant to you and your efforts to work with the person. Or if you have another reason that you need the information.
For example, if you are trying to purchase a wheelchair for a family member, then asking a person about their wheelchair is fine. Start the conversation with an explanation of why you are asking. Keep your questions to queries about the features of the wheelchair and what the user thinks about its operation.
Except for situations like that, there is no need to mention someone’s disability, wheelchair, assistive devices or service animals.
Once you have an established a relationship with a person with a disability, then it might be appropriate to bring up the subject. But ask permission first. Start by saying, “would it be ok if I asked you about…”
If they say they’d rather not, then respect their wishes.
If they are open to a conversation, then be respectful in how you ask, using person-centered language. Questions like “what’s wrong with you?” are only forgivable if you are two years old. A statement like “you don’t look disabled,” is just plain annoying.
And if they tell you openly about some of their challenges, be respectful of what they say.
This is especially true for those with mental challenges. Saying things like “everyone has days like that” isn’t helpful. You might mean they aren’t alone in their struggle. But your thought, however well intended, won’t come across like that.
If someone has mental or emotional issues that keep them from living their life the way they want to, then what they experience is much different from what others have to cope with.
If they tell you it’s difficult, then do them the courtesy of believing what they share with you.
Offering Help to a Person with Disabilities
It’s natural to want to help a person with a disability. Just ask them first.
Some will refuse. Keep in mind that many people with disabilities have fought hard to achieve or maintain the level of independence and ability that they have.
If they do accept your help, follow their instructions.
How to Treat Someone in a Wheelchair
In addition to using people-centered language and respectful communication, there are a few things to keep in mind when talking with a person who uses a wheelchair.
The first is to consider the wheelchair as an extension of their personal space. These means do not touch it. Or lean on it. Or put your drink on the chair’s desktop if it has one.
Speak directly to the person. Not their helper, attendant or family member. Just because someone uses a wheelchair, they haven’t lost the ability to carry on a conversation.
Treat the person as an adult. Don’t pat them on the head. Or bend over to talk with them as if they were a small child.
Instead, if you know the conversation will last for more than a few minutes, squat down to be at eye level, or find a chair for you to sit in while you talk. Don’t give them a stiff neck in exchange for your conversation. No matter how entertaining you are, everyone’s neck muscles have their limits.
Another thing is to not make assumptions. People use wheelchairs for many different reasons. Some are recovering from surgery or an accident. Others might have a heart condition or balance issues. They might be able to stand or walk for short distances. If you have a need to know if they can stand or walk, ask them what they are capable of.
Other Disability Etiquette Tips
Every disability is different. Here are a few disability etiquettes do’s and don’ts for interacting with people with specific kinds of disabilities.
People with Hearing Impairments
Don’t shout. If you want to get their attention, wave.
Do look directly at them and speak slowly. If they can’t read lips, they’ll let you know. If they have an interpreter, speak to the person with the hearing impairment, not the interpreter.
Don’t walk between people using sign language. Doing so cuts off their conversation as effectively as if a cell phone connection dropped.
People with Impaired Sight
If you are walking a person who cannot see, don’t grab their arm and direct them. Do allow them to take your arm and follow you.
As you go, do be specific about what obstacles you are approaching or what changes of direction you’ll be making. For example, you’d say “in about three steps, we’ll be at the curb,” or “we’re going to turn right in about three yards.”
If you are helping them to a seat, it is appropriate to guide their hand to the back of the chair. They’ll be able to take it from there.
People with Service Animals
The use of service animals, while once limited to seeing-eye dogs, is now becoming more common. If the animal is wearing a vest or other identification as a service animal, that means the animal is on the job and is working.
So, don’t do anything to distract it. That means don’t touch, talk to, or feed the animal without the owner’s permission. If the owner says no, then respect what you’ve been told.
This is important because the animals need to concentrate on their jobs. For example, some dogs are trained to sense when their owner is about to have a seizure and to alert them of this. The warning gives the person enough time to take precautions, such as getting to the floor, so they are not injured by a fall.
A distracted dog won’t be able to give the proper warning in time.
While disability etiquette may seem complicated, it doesn’t have to be. Common sense and simple courtesy can guide you through nearly every situation. The goal is to extend respect to people with disabilities, so interactions with them can be pleasant and productive for both of you.