Disability etiquette and people-first language

When a person with a disability is in the room, you may feel uncomfortable because you don’t want to say or do the wrong thing. You don’t know the rules. Here are some guidelines to follow to help you feel at ease from the start, and lead the way for others, too.

When you’re speaking about someone

Take a moment to consider whether the people’s disabilities are relevant to your story or conversation. Instead, you could bring up their achievements, abilities and individual qualities, such as whether they’re a parent, business owner, etc., the way you typically would.

Describe the condition they have succinctly, and use person-first language:

“James has a disability.” or “James has autism.”
instead of “James is disabled.” or “James is autistic.”

When you’re meeting someone

Always offer the same hand, smile or tone of voice that you’re giving to everyone else in the room. If they cannot reciprocate your social courtesy, they will let you know. Speak directly to them, not their caregivers, helpers or sign language interpreters.

And don’t be embarrassed if you accidentally use common expressions such as, “see you later” or “gotta run.” People with a disabilities want to be treated equally in their community, and when you’re at ease and relaxed around them, they feel included and supported.

When you’re concerned about someone

Some people feel obligated to help when they see people with a disabilities. But most of the time, they are more than capable of handling their own needs. Remember, a person with a disability isn’t necessarily chronically sick or unhealthy.

  • First, ask if they’d like some help.
  • Next, wait until your offer of help is accepted.
  • Then, listen carefully to any instructions they may have.
  • Last, follow the instructions exactly as told to you.  

Preferred terms

Using outdated or offensive language around disabilities is more than just a faux pas. Your words can sound pitying, fearful or negative. But it’s easy to update your approach. To aptly represent yourself or your business within this community, get familiar with the following terms.

Proper terms

  • Disability – A functional limitation that interferes with a person’s ability to walk, hear, talk, learn, etc.
  • Blind – no visual capability
  • Legally blind, low vision – some visual capability
  • Hearing loss, hard of hearing – some hearing capability
  • Hemiplegia – paralysis of one side of the body
  • Paraplegia – loss of function in the lower body only
  • Quadriplegia – paralysis of both arms and legs
  • Residual limb – post-amputation of a limb

Improper terms

Handicapped – this word is linked to an image of a person with a cap in hand begging for money. People with disabilities do not want to be the recipients of charity or pity.

Also avoid:

  • abnormal
  • afflicted
  • burden
  • condition
  • deformed
  • differently abled
  • disfigured
  • handicap-able
  • handicapped
  • incapacitated
  • imbecile
  • maniac
  • maimed
  • madman
  • moron
  • palsied
  • pathetic
  • physically challenged
  • pitiful
  • retard
  • spastic
  • stricken with
  • suffers
  • tragedy
  • unfortunate
  • victim

Disability-specific guidelines

Use these tips to interact with people with different types of disabilities, to behave properly around their mobility aids, and to include them in social situations.

When a person has a wheelchair

A wheelchair or other visual, hearing, learning or mobility aid is the personal body space of the person using it. Do not adjust it, take it, lean on it or touch it. It is considered very rude to do so.

If you’re going to be speaking with a person in a wheelchair for more than a few minutes, place yourself at eye level with that person.

When a person has a visual impairment

When you’re greeting people with visual impairment, identify yourself and others. For example, say, “On my right is John Smith.” Also remember to identify people when you speak to them. Use a normal tone of voice and indicate when the conversation is over. Let them know when you’re moving from one place to another.

Allow them to take your arm, so you can guide them respectfully. Use specific directions, such as “left in 10 feet,” as you lead them to their desired location.

When a person has hearing loss

Write a note, tap them on the shoulder or wave. Shouting will not help, but an interpreter will. Not all people with hearing loss can read lips, but those who do rely on facial expressions and body language for understanding.

Look directly at them and speak clearly, slowly and expressively to establish if they read lips. Keep food, hands and other objects away from your mouth.

These tips are meant to be a guide in your day-to-day dealings with people who have a disability. It’s important to note, however, that people with disabilities have different preferences when referring to their disability. Some people see their disability as an essential part of who they are and prefer to be identified with their disability first — called Identity-First Language. Others prefer the People-First Language outlined here. The ultimate tip when dealing with persons with disabilities, however, is always ask to find out their language preferences.

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