Disability Etiquette: The Ultimate Guide to Being Inclusive and Empathetic

Disability Etiquette: The Ultimate Guide to Being Inclusive and Empathetic

Written and reviewed by Lourdes Duah

Many people without disabilities do their best to treat people with disabilities as respectfully as they would anyone else. However, not everyone knows what could be harmful to communities they're not a part of.

In the interest of education, this blog post will provide you with some general tips on disability etiquette, or how to interact respectfully with people who have disabilities. Armed with this knowledge, you’ll be able to make people with disabilities feel more included, respected, and comfortable in your presence.

Before we begin, remember that no quick list can possibly cover everyone's preferences or every single mistake to avoid. You’ll even see a "rule" on this list that can vary from person to person. Sometimes, your best bet is to just be direct; asking someone what they're comfortable with always beats making assumptions.

But in the interest of avoiding as many awkward social encounters or accidental offenses as possible, keep reading to learn some of the basics of disability etiquette.


Quick Do’s and Don’ts of Disability Etiquette

Do Speak Directly to People with Disabilities Instead of Speaking to their Company, their Caregiver, or their Interpreter

If you speak to someone else in place of the person with a disability that you're in a conversation with, it can come off as derogatory. It treats the person as if they're not intelligent or capable enough to respond for themselves. This is important when interacting with people who travel with a caregiver or interpreter, but the principle is the same if they’re with a friend, family member, or other companions. Lexi Heer, a power soccer athlete for Team USA and a wheelchair user, mentioned that people don’t always address her directly when she’s in groups. She said that staff at restaurants will sometimes ask her mom what she wants to drink instead of her, making it seem like she can’t order for herself. Out of respect, address people with disabilities directly when speaking to or about them.


Do Speak with Your Normal Tone

In the same vein, you can address a person with a disability in the same tone you'd use with any other person. Do not baby-talk them as this can be incredibly demeaning. For the same reason, do not purposely speak at incredibly slow speeds.


Do Not Touch Mobility Aides without Permission

Mobility equipment, including wheelchairs, scooters, canes, and other devices, is part of a person’s personal space. People with disabilities deserve to have their boundaries respected just as anyone else. Touching mobility equipment can disrupt a person’s movement or simply make them uncomfortable, so avoid it unless you have the person’s consent. You’ll also want to avoid moving their equipment without permission if they set it down somewhere.

Additionally, avoid petting or interacting with service animals if a person has one. 


Do Plan Ahead to Make Sure a Venue Can Meet a Person’s Accommodation Needs

           Lexi Heer recalled another time where she was invited to happy hour with her coworkers, but the only available seats were at the bar and high-top tables that she couldn’t use. If you’re unsure whether a person needs accommodation at a certain location, it doesn’t hurt to ask. After that, a call ahead or some quick research about the venue can show that you care about the person's needs. It can also prevent any mishaps that may bar the person from fully participating in the event.


Do Not Provide Unwanted Help

          Of course, if a person asks for help, it's great to provide it if you're able. However, insisting on helping without being asked (especially if someone has already refused) can be condescending. A person with a disability generally knows the scope of their ability and what they need help with. Hovering or constantly providing help without being asked can be annoying at best and an insult to someone’s intelligence at worst. DisabilityIn, a non-profit focused on disability inclusion, suggests using broad, open-ended terms like “let me know if you need anything” to offer help. This lets the person with a disability know that you’re open to helping but lets them choose if and when they take you up on your offer.


Do Not Use Outdated or Offensive Terms

Certain words historically associated with people with disabilities have negative connotations and are more likely to offend someone. You should generally avoid the terms “handicapped” and “differently-abled.” Many people in wheelchairs prefer not to be called “wheelchair-bound;” it can imply that wheelchairs are negative or confining when, in reality, wheelchairs are useful mobility devices that help people navigate the world. Victimizing language like “cerebral palsy victim” or “suffers from blindness” can be disempowering as well.


Our next few tips come from DisabilityIn and a few other sources. They’re more specific to different abilities.


People with Visual Impairments

  • If you are serving as a sighted guide:
    • Do not grab or push the person along. Instead, verbally offer the person your arm to take and walk at a comfortable speed.
    • Describe the environment in detail; include any major obstacles, written material, or any other important information about the location.


People who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing

  • Gain the person’s attention before beginning to speak.
  • Face the person directly when communicating with them. Speak to them rather than a support person or interpreter if they have one.
  • Use a normal volume when speaking unless directed otherwise.


People with Speech Disabilities

  • Don’t interrupt the speaker or attempt to finish a sentence for them.
  • Be patient and accommodating. It may take a person with a speech disability longer to finish speaking. Stay attentive and respectful.
  • Whenever you are unsure what someone has said, ask them to repeat themselves. Repeat back what you heard to them to make sure it’s correct, then continue on.
  • If you still don’t understand what was said, ask the person to write it out for you.


A general list of tips can make a great starting point, but everyone is different. Certain “rules” of disability etiquette are debated among advocates or just naturally vary from person to person.


Person-first language vs. Identity-first language

A common guideline in disability etiquette is to address people using person-first language. Instead of calling someone a “disabled person,” most guidelines suggest calling them a “person with a disability.” Here are some examples:

  • “Worker with autism” vs. “autistic worker”
  • “Writer who is deaf” vs. “deaf writer”
  • “Customer with a visual impairment” vs. “blind customer”

Using person-first language honours the fact that people are more than their disability. It’s intended to discourage reducing people to only their disability and instead promotes seeing people with disabilities as human beings first. JuneAdaptive follows this model in most of our blogs.

Identity-first language leads with the diagnosis or ability. From our earlier examples, this would be phrases like “autistic worker” or “deaf writer.” People tend to recommend against identity-first language because it can place more importance on a person’s diagnosis than who they are as a person. However, more people are starting to express a preference for identity-first language.

Identity-first language is especially common among those in the autistic and deaf communities. It tends to be more common with young people as well. According to advocates, identity-first language can affirm that a disability can be an important part of someone's life experience that can’t be separated from them. Some also see it as a reclaiming of language that’s often used negatively. Another argument among advocates is that person-first language treats disability with inherent negativity. By contrast, identity-first language can help society normalize disability and view it with more neutrality.

This debate is ongoing, and each approach has its pros and cons. Generally, you can use people-first language unless you’re asked to do otherwise. Everyone will have their own preference, so ask the individual you’re interacting with if you’re unsure.


What to do if You Make a Mistake

Even with all the tips in the world, there’s still a chance that you could upset or offend your peer by accident. Perhaps you use person-first language not knowing the person prefers identity-first language, or you absentmindedly move someone’s cane without asking.

           First and foremost, apologize. If you’re able to rectify your mistake do so or ask the person how you can do so; for example, you can agree to use their preferred language from that point on or make a mental note not to touch their cane without asking. Do not insist that you’re right or that they should know you didn’t mean to offend. Listen intently and ensure you do better in the future.


The Golden Rule: If You’re Unsure, Just Ask

           This is probably the most important rule of disability etiquette. It’s already come up at several points in this blog and for good reason. People with disabilities are not a monolith and each individual has their own preferences. For gray areas or uncertainties, like people-first vs. identity-first language or whether someone needs help, your best bet is to ask the person. This honours their ability to choose what makes them comfortable and shows your commitment to respecting them.

           Looking up general guidelines is a great start, but all the research in the world can’t tell you what will make each individual feel accepted and included. Listen, adjust, and do your best; those are the real keys to creating an inclusive environment for your peers.

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