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Etiquette: Interacting with People with Disabilities

This 3 minute and 40 second YouTube video from the D.C. Office of Disability Rights discusses general rules of etiquette for interacting with people with disabilities. We encourage you to watch this short disability sensitivity training video before working with someone with a disability. We promise you will enjoy this short video – be entertained while learning!

  • People with disabilities are human. Acknowledge their differences as you would acknowledge anyone else’s uniqueness and treat them “as normal.” Do not talk down to them literally or figuratively. If they use a wheelchair, use a chair to be on their same eye level if you are having a long conversation.
  • Person-First vs. Identity First: Ask The Person. Person-first language puts the person before the disability (i.e. person who has cerebral palsy). Identity-first language puts the disability before the person (i.e. autistic woman). People with disabilities have different preferences on which language they use. Ask the person how they would like to be referred to. Additionally, avoid outdated terms like “handicapped,” “crippled” or “retarded.” Please see more details on this point in our “Terminology Tips: Using the Correct Lexicon” section.
  • Speak directly to a person with a disability, not to their companion or sign language interpreter. A lack of immediate response does not indicate that the person can’t or won’t respond.
  • Adults with disabilities are adults and deserve to be treated and spoken to as adults. Do not make decisions for them. Do not tell them what to do or use baby talk. Provide them with every option you provide those without disabilities. If the option they choose presents a difficulty concerning their disability, discuss ways you could modify or adapt the choice.
  • If you are unsure of how you should interact with a person with a disability, just ask them. Just because someone has a disability, do not assume they need help. Do not give assistance without asking first if they want it. You can ask if the person would like help, but don’t ask repeatedly or qualify their response with “are you sure?” Respect someone’s choice even if it looks like they’re struggling. If there is a dangerous situation, help just as you would help someone without a disability.
  • A person’s mobility equipment, such as a wheelchair, scooter or cane, is part of their personal space. Do not touch or move it without permission, even if someone puts it down or chooses to leave it somewhere. Leaning on someone’s wheelchair is like leaning on their shoulder. Putting something in someone’s carry basket is like putting something in their backpack. It is vital that the owner knows where their equipment is at all times.
  • Listen attentively when you are 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 or close-ended 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.
  • People who have psychiatric disabilities may have varying personalities and different ways of coping with their disability. Some may have trouble picking up on social cues; others may be supersensitive. One person may be very high energy, while someone else may appear sluggish. Treat each person as an individual. Ask what will make them most comfortable and respect their needs to the maximum extent possible.
  • There are visible disabilities as well as non-visible disabilities, meaning not all disabilities are apparent. A person may make a request or act in a way that seems strange to you. That request or behavior may be disability-related. For example, you may give seemingly simple verbal directions to someone, but the person asks you to write the information down. He or she may have a learning disability that makes written communication easier. Even though these disabilities are hidden, they are real.
  • Please note it is considered offensive to pretend to have a disability, and disability simulation experiences should be done for design/navigational purposes only.

Learn more by reading the United Spinal Association’s Disability Etiquette booklet:

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