Disability Etiquette

Attitudes toward disabilities are often rooted in misunderstanding and misinformation. That is why the basis for all interaction, as with any person, is "Do Not Assume." Starting with that, you can help break down barriers that keep many people with disabilities isolated from society. Just let common sense guide you, and always remember that a person with disabilities is, first and foremost, a person.

Some language that is considered appropriate by one person may be considered inappropriate by another. If you are unsure about the language you are using, simply ask!

  • Relax! Do not be embarrassed if you use phrases like "let's get moving" or "see you later" that seem to relate to a person's disability.
  • Ask people if they would like help before you act, and listen to any instructions they give you.
  • Consider the extra time it might take for someone to complete a task. Let the person set the pace.
  • Be courteous to all people you encounter. If you are shaking everyone's hand, make sure not to exclude anyone with a disability. If they cannot shake your hand they will tell you.
  • It is okay to ask someone about their disability if it is relevant to the conversation. But remember, it is also okay for them to choose not to talk about it.
  • Try to anticipate accessibility issues when planning events. If you cannot avoid all barriers, make sure you talk with any attendees it might affect and work to make it possible for them to attend.
  • Hanging on someone's wheelchair or assistive device is the same as leaning on a person. Assistive devices are an extension of their personal space.
  • When helping to guide someone, allow the person to take your arm so that you are not pushing or pulling them. Point out any upcoming obstacles.
  • Don't "talk down" to a person with a disability. Treat adults as adults and children as children.
  • Speak directly to the person you are addressing, not a companion. If the person you are addressing is using an interpreter, do not talk to the interpreter—continue to address the person.
  • When speaking to a person who is deaf or hard of hearing, look directly at the person and speak slowly and clearly. Not every person who is deaf can read lips, so use your facial expressions and body language to help communicate. If they are able to read lips, make sure you face a light source and keep other objects, like food or cigarettes, away from your mouth. Do not shout, but look for other ways to communicate, like writing notes. If you are in a group, make sure they can see who is talking.
  • Identify yourself and others with you when you meet people who are blind. Mention who is speaking when you start talking. Speak normally (don't raise your voice), identify any movements, especially if people move around, and end the conversation before moving on. If you are giving instructions, make them as specific as possible (i.e., "walk 100 feet and then turn left").
  • Resist the urge to pet and play with service animals. Remember they are always working!
  • Don't be afraid to put yourself on someone's level. If you are talking to someone in a wheelchair for a while, find a chair and sit down. It will save you both from a neck cramp.
  • When someone has difficulty speaking, be encouraging, give them your whole and unhurried attention, and do not correct them. Try not to speak for the person, and instead let them talk and then ask questions to clarify their meaning. Repeat what they said so you can be sure you understood.
  • Anyone can make mistakes. Offer an apology if you feel you've made a mistake. Keep a sense of humor, and be willing to communicate so that you can learn how best to handle any given situation.

Sources: Sources: Paraquad; Easter Seals; Memphis Center for Independent Living; Access Resources

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In their own words

Those with disabilities share their personal stories.

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Opening more
than doors

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Missouri History Museum exhibition

Americans with Disabilities Act: 20 Years Later.
June 26, 2010
to Jan 8, 2012

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