Skip to main content

Disability Etiquette

Many of us grew up during a time when people with disabilities were relegated to special classrooms, and, as children, we were told not to stare at or ask questions of people in wheelchairs, people using sign language, or people who were mentally retarded. Since then, laws have been passed to ensure the rights of people with disabilities, and society overall has become more accommodating and accepting of those who are "different." Americans with disabilities are now in the mainstream — living independently, working, playing, going to school, voting, shopping, and otherwise participating in the same activities as everyone else.

As an employer you may encounter students and job seekers with many different kinds of physical, cognitive, and sensory impairments, some very visible and others unseen. It is important that you feel comfortable with people with disabilities — and they with you. The following tips are provided to increase your confidence, understanding, and skill in interacting with people with disabilities.

  • Remember, no manual can prescribe exactly how to respond or behave in every situation. Just as able-bodied people have differing preferences, habits, moods, and opinions, so do people with disabilities.
  • Focus on the situation or task at hand, and the employee`s abilities and strengths, rather than the disability.
  • Don`t define the employee by his/her disability. Each person is the sum of his or her parts, which may include a disability, as well as a unique personality, aspirations, goals, learning style, tastes, interests, hobbies, and family situation.
  • Avoid using labels such as "wheelchair-bound," "sufferer," and "afflicted" that evoke helplessness or pity.
  • Use “People-first” language that properly identifies a disability as one part of a person’s identity. Labels such as "the blind" and "the disabled" categorize and focus on the label rather than the person. Phrases such as "wheelchair user," "person with a disability," and "person who is blind" are more appropriate.
  • In conversation, speak directly with the person with a disability, rather than with a person who may be accompanying him or her. Maintain eye contact with the person with whom you are speaking, even if he or she is using a sign language interpreter. Also remember that, in most situations, there usually is no reason to speak unusually slowly or loudly.
  • Offer assistance only when it appears that assistance may be needed. Be sure to wait for the person`s response and then proceed according to the response. If you are unsure, ask what is the best way to assist. Remember that everyone is different! Some people will gladly accept a helping hand, while others may feel that the assistance is intrusive or patronizing.
  • Don`t lean on, touch, or move a person`s equipment without asking his or her permission. This includes wheelchairs!
  • Ask for a person`s advice about how to make effective accommodations for him/her.
  • When a person`s disability is relevant in a particular situation and you need to know more about his or her needs, do so sensitively. Explain why you are asking for the information and how the information will help in the situation.
  • If you are curious about the use of a certain assistive technology device or piece of equipment, just ask. The user most likely will be happy to tell you about it.
  • Relax and behave as you would with others in a similar situation.
  • Learn as much as you can about specific conditions that cause disabilities, but remember that each person`s situation is unique.

(Source: U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy (edited))