Disability Etiquette

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?” This page provides some guidelines to ensure respectful and equal treatment of people with disabilities.

Things to Remember

  • Individuals with disabilities are people!
  • Individuals with disabilities are whole people!
  • They expect to be treated with the same dignity and respect that you do.
  • Just because someone has a disability does not mean he/she is disabled.

Disability Etiquette

  • Remember, he/she is a person, NOT a disability.
  • Words that speak to a person's medical condition are rarely appropriate.
  • Never patronize them by patting them on the head or back.
  • Offer to shake their hand, even if it appears as if they have limited use of their arms or have an artificial limb. Simply the gesture will help them feel accepted and create a warmer environment for communication.
  • For those who cannot shake hands, lightly touch the individual on the shoulder or arm to welcome their presence.
  • Look at and speak directly to the person, not through a companion, care-taker, or interpreter.
  • Treat adults as adults.
  • Don’t apologize if you use an expression such as “I gotta run” or “See you later” that relates to the person’s disability. These expressions are part of everyday language and it is likely the apology will be more offensive than the expression.
  • Don’t pet or feed service animals or guide dogs as they are working.
  • When giving directions, make sure you consider things such as the weather, locations of ramps/curb-cuts, and other physical obstacles that may hinder travel for individuals with disabilities.

Speech Disability Etiquette

  • Never assume….many people mistakenly identify these individuals as being mentally retarded or mentally ill. Make sure to be patient in finding out which communication method works best for them.
  • Be 100 percent attentive when conversing with an individual who has difficulty speaking.
  • If you are in a noisy and/or crowded environment, don’t panic. Just try and move to a quieter location to talk.
  • Let them complete their own sentences. Be patient and do not try to speak for them. Do not pretend to understand; instead, tell them what you do understand and allow them to respond.
  • Do not be corrective, but rather, encouraging.
  • When necessary, it’s OK to ask short questions that require short answers. 

Wheelchair Etiquette

  • Things to Remember
    • Individual who use wheelchairs may require different degrees of assistance.
    • Some who use wheelchairs may also use canes or other assistive devices and may not need his/her wheelchair all the time.
  • Do not automatically assist the individual without permission. It is okay to offer assistance. However, if the offer is not accepted, respect his/her request!
  • If you will be speaking with an individual in a wheelchair for more than a couple minutes, find a place where you can sit down to give the individual a more comfortable viewing angle.
  • A person’s wheelchair is part of his/her own personal space. Never move, lean on, rock, or touch his/her wheelchair without permission. In addition to being rude, it can be dangerous.
  • Do not assume that having to use a wheelchair is a tragedy. Wheelchairs can be a means of freedom to fully engage in life.

Hearing Disability Etiquette

  • Do not shout at a hearing impaired person unless they request you to. Just speak in a normal tone but make sure your lips are visible.
  • Keep conversations clear and find a quiet location to communicate.
  • If you are asked to repeat yourself, answering “nothing, it’s not important” implies the person is not worth repeating yourself for. It is demeaning; be patient and comply.
  • Show consideration by facing the light source and keeping things (such as cigarettes or your hands) away from you mouth while speaking.
  • Look directly at and speak directly to the person rather than looking at the interpreter or any others who may accompany the individual.
  • Remember that facial expressions and natural gestures enhance communication.
  • Clarify which method of communication and language is preferred.

Visual Disability Etiquette

  • When meeting someone with a visual disability, identify yourself and others with you (e.g. “Jane is on my left and Jack is on my right.”). Continue to identify the person with whom you are speaking.
  • If you go out to dinner with an acquaintance with a visual disability, ask if you can describe what is on the menu and what is on his/her plate.
  • When walking with someone with a visual impairment, offer them your arm for guidance. They will likely keep a half-step behind to anticipate curbs and steps. 
  • Let the person know when you are leaving the room.

Words and phrases guidelines


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.



A person with a disability



Handicap; handicapped person

A person who has mental or developmental disabilities

Moron; retarded; feebleminded

Able-bodied; able to walk, see, etc

Healthy; normal- Just because someone has a disability does not mean they are not healthy

A wheelchair user; walks with aid Confined/restricted to a wheelchair
Mental or emotional disability Crazy; insane
A person who is deaf/ hearing impairment Deaf and dumb; mute
A person with epilepsy An epileptic

He has cerebral palsy

He is a cerebral palsy victim
A successful/productive person

Person who has overcome his/her disability.

Person who is courageous.


Avoid terms which carry a negative connotation:

Abnormal, Afflicted, Confined, Crippled, Defective, Handicap, Invalid, Lame, Palsied, Retarded, Stricken, Sufferer, Victim, Withered

Use empowering, individualized vocabulary; don't clump them with phrases like "the blind" or "the disabled."


Employment Do's and Don'ts



  • have written job descriptions identifying all the essential functions of the job.
  • learn where to find and recruit individuals with disabilities.
  • train supervisors on how to make reasonable accommodations.
  • remember that those protected by the ADA include individual who have AIDS, cancer, brain-injured, deaf, blind, mentally retarded and learning disabled.
  • make forms available to those with visual disabilities.



  • ask if a person has a disability during an employment interview!!
  • assume that if a person is disabled, he/she will be better suited for some jobs more than others.
  • assume reasonable accommodations will be expensive.
  • assume your workplace is accessible.


Additional Resources


ADA Business Connection

Enforcement Guidance:

Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship Under the Americans with Disabilities Act

Sign language alphabet

Wheelchair Information 



Illinois Attorney General


Disability Etiquette