Disability Etiquette

Posted February 10, 2012 by Beth in


If you have not had many interactions with persons with disabilities, you may not know exactly how to act. For example, you may ask yourself “how do I talk to someone in a wheelchair?” or “how do I interact with someone who is blind or deaf?” These questions often come to our minds whether we have a disability or not.

The United Spinal Association put together a Disability Etiquette booklet for all of us to learn and to have a better understanding about interacting with people with disabilities.

This booklet provides the basics, tips on specific disabilities, service animals, and much more. To give you an idea of what you can learn from the booklet, below is the portion about the basics of disability etiquette.


Just because someone has a disability, don’t assume he/she needs help. If the setting is accessible, people with disabilities can usually get around fine. Adults with disabilities want to be treated as independent people. Offer assistance only if the person appears to need it. And if he/she does want help, ask how before you act.


Some people with disabilities depend on their arms for balance. Grabbing them-even if your intention is to assist-could knock them off balance. Avoid patting a person on the head or touching his/her wheelchair, scooter or cane. People with disabilities consider their equipment part of their personal space.


Always speak directly to the person with a disability, not to this companion, aide or sign language interpreter. Making small talk with a person who has a disability is great; just talk to him/her as you would with anyone else. Respect his/her privacy. If you ask about his/her disability, he/she may feel like you are treating him/her as a disability, not as a human being. However, many people with disabilities are comfortable with children’s natural curiosity and do not mind if a child asks them questions.

When communicating to people with disabilities or about people with disabilities, keep in mind what words and phrases you are using. Below are some guidelines that will help you understand.

Disability vs. Handicap

  • A disability is a condition caused by such things as an accident or trauma, disease, or genetics that limits a person’s vision, hearing, speech, mobility, or mental function.
  • A handicap is a constraint imposed upon a person, regardless of that person’s ability or disability. These constraints can be physical or attitudinal. For example, stairs and curbs are handicaps imposed on those who use wheelchairs.

Always remember that the person is not the condition. Keep all your speech person focused, not disability focused. Avoid terms which carry a negative connotation such as abnormal, afflicted, confined, crippled, defective, handicap, invalid, lame, palsied, retarded, stricken, sufferer, victim, and withered. Instead use empowering individualized vocabulary. Also, don’t clump them with phrases like “the blind” or “the disabled.”


People with disabilities are the best judge of what they can or cannot do. Don’t make decisions for them about participating in any activity. Depending on the situation, it could be a violation of The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) to exclude people because of a presumption about their limitations.


When people who have a disability ask for an accommodation at your business, it is not a compliant. It shows they feel comfortable enough in your establishment to ask for what they need. And if they get a positive response, they will probably come back again and tell their friends about the good service they received.

The key thing to remember is if you are ever unsure what to do or say with a person who has a disability just ask them. They are willing to help you to understand and learn. You can learn more about disability etiquette such as specific disabilities by going to www.unitedspinal.org and click on disability etiquette booklet. Or you can go to your local RCIL office to view a hard copy of the booklet in their resource library.

Before I close, I would like to include a final word from disability etiquette booklet that is important to know. It says,

“People with disabilities are individuals with families, jobs, hobbies, likes and dislikes, and problems and joys. While the disability is an integral part of who they are, it alone does not define them. Don’t make them into disability heroes or victims. Treat them as individuals.”


Beth has been with RCIL since 2007 and is the Information and Outreach Coordinator in our Osage City office. She takes information and referral calls and represents RCIL through community outreach.

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