There are times when people are unsure how to interact with someone with a disability or what is appropriate terminology for an individual’s disability.

Appropriate etiquette when interacting with people with disabilities is based primarily on normal respect and courtesy. It is important to remember that you are not working with disabilities; you are working with individuals who have disabilities.

General Points of Etiquette


  • All people deserve respect regardless of whether they are a person with a disability or a person without a disability.
  • People with disabilities are people first, and though a disability may impact their lives, it does not wholly define them. People with disabilities have emotions, personalities, interest, talents, and goals that extend far beyond their disability.
  • Do not make assumptions about a person’s abilities, and always presume competence.
  • People with disabilities are not broken, missing something, or less-than those without disabilities.
  • One of the greatest barriers to equality for people with disabilities is the negative perceptions and associations made by others toward or about them. By showing respect and presuming competence we remove this barrier, opening the door to greater equality.
  • Relax. Focus on effective communication and not on disability related issues.
  • Talk directly to the individual, not through their interpreter or assistant.
  • Extend common courtesies to people with disabilities such as shaking hands. If the individual cannot shake your hand he or she will tell you or may offer the other hand to shake.
  • Offer assistance before helping. Do not automatically take someone’s arm or assist them without asking.
  • If in doubt, ask what to do. Then, listen and follow the individual’s recommendation.


  • The mention of a person’s disability is unnecessary if it is not relevant to the context.
  • Use “person first” language. Person first language defines the individual not the disability. Do not define the person by their disability or diagnosis. The individual is a “person with a disability” not a “handicapped person”
  • Avoid language which disempowers the individual such as “victim” or “sufferer.” Alternately, avoid “courageous”, “brave” or “special”
  • “Disabled” is the most generally accepted term. Avoid outdated terms like “handicapped,” “crippled,” “invalid” and “wheelchair bound”

Avoid Pity:

People with disabilities are not “victims.” As one woman who uses a wheelchair noted, “I am not a wheelchair victim.” Nor should people be described as “inspirational” or “courageous” just because they have a disability. People with disabilities are also not “suffering” or “struggling.” They may be managing and/or celebrating their symptoms and diagnosis! Suffering is optional, and subjective.

Avoid Being Cute:

Terms like “physically challenged,” “special” and “differently-abled” are patronizing. If appropriate, note that a person has a physical, sensory, or mental impairment and leave it at that. Also, people without disabilities are not “normal” because that infers that people with disabilities are “abnormal.” Rather, they are “non-disabled” or “able-bodied (AB).”

Talking with a person who is deaf or hard of hearing

  • In general, people who have hearing loss but who communicate verbally are “hard of hearing” and people with profound hearing losses are deaf
  • If the person uses a sign language interpreter, focus on and speak directly to the person, not to the interpreter
  • Avoid blocking the view of your face and mouth
  • Speak clearly without shouting

When you are with a person who uses a wheelchair

  • Never lean on or touch a person’s wheelchair or any other assistive device or service animal without permission. A person’s assistive device is part of the person’s personal space
  • Be aware to place items within reach
  • When talking to a wheelchair user, try to sit at his/her level. If that’s not possible, stand at a slight distance, so that the person can comfortably make eye contact with you
  • Say “wheelchair user” rather than “confined to a wheelchair” or “wheelchair bound”

Interacting with individuals who are blind or visually impaired

  • Its okay to offer your arm for assistance, but never take someone’s arm without asking
  • Similarly, it’s okay to offer help with getting refreshments or other items if that’s the individual’s preference
  • When a person who is blind or visually impaired is in a group of people, have each person identify themselves each time they speak if necessary
  • Do not generalize that all people who are blind or visually impaired read Braille
  • If the person has a guide dog, do not touch or distract the animal