People with disabilities prefer that you focus on their abilities, not their disabilities. The person should always be stressed first. The term “handicapped” should be avoided. The preferred term is “people or persons with disabilities.” However, the term “disabled people is acceptable, but note that this term still defines people as disabled first, and people second.
Language is powerful, but attitudes and behaviors are the most difficult barriers for people with disabilities to overcome.
- Be Yourself: Treat people with disabilities with the same respect and consideration that you have for everyone else. Treat the person as an individual, not as a disability. Don’t assume that “disability” is all that person can talk about or is interested in. Find a topic of small talk, the way you would with anyone. As in any new situation, everyone will feel more comfortable if you relax.
- Meeting Someone: Use a normal voice when extending a verbal welcome. Do not raise your voice unless requested. By your actions and words, you should treat people with disabilities the same as you would anyone else. It’s okay to invite a person in a wheelchair to “go for a walk,” or to ask a blind person if they “see what you mean.”
People who use wheelchairs may have a variety of different disabilities. Some have use of their arms and some don’t. When you meet someone, extend your hand to shake if that is what you normally do. A person who cannot shake hands will let you know, but he/she will appreciate being treated in a normal way. If you are meeting a blind person, identify yourself. If you have met before, remind the person of the context because he/she won’t have the visual cues to jog the memory.
- Socializing: Do not leave persons with disabilities out of a conversation or activity because you feel uncomfortable or fear that they will feel uncomfortable. Include them as you would anyone else. They know what they can do, and what they want to do. Let it be their decision whether or not to participate.
- Touching: Guide dogs and other service animals are working animals. Do not pet or touch them unless you have specific permission. Do not touch a person with a disability unless there is a good reason, such as shaking hands in greeting or if the person has requested assistance. However, you may gently touch a deaf person to get their attention. Never push a person’s wheelchair without their permission. If you meet a person with AIDS, shake their hand as you would anyone else’s. You can’t get AIDS by touching.
- Auxiliary Aids: Do not touch someone’s cane, wheelchair, or other device. It is a part of that person’s mobility aid and part of the space that belongs to the person who uses it. If you are interested in a demonstration of someone’s electronic aid, ask. Do not try to use such equipment unless you are invited to do so.
- Hidden Disabilities: Not all disabilities are apparent. A person may have trouble following a conversation, may not respond when you call or wave, or may say or do something that seems inappropriate. The person may have a hidden disability, such as low vision, a seizure disorder, hearing loss, a learning disability, a brain injury, mental illness, or a health condition. These are just a few of the many different types of hidden disabilities. Don’t make assumptions about the person or the disability. Be open-minded.
- Helping: Do not automatically give assistance. Ask first if the person wants help. Many disabled people will be grateful for an offer of help. Assistance with doors, as long as you are clear of the path, is usually very much appreciated. Follow the person’s cues, and ask if you are not sure. If your offer of assistance is accepted, listen to or ask for instructions. Don’t be offended if someone refuses your offer. It is his/her choice to be as independent as possible.
- Communication: People experience communication disabilities when their ability to receive, send, or process information is reduced.
Talk directly to the person, not to an aide, friend, or interpreter. It is important to make eye contact. If you don’t understand someone, ask the person to repeat it. If the person doesn’t understand you when you speak, try again. Sometimes it takes repeated attempts at listening or speaking for communication to be successful. Let them know your communication with them is worthwhile to you. If the person uses a wheelchair, sit down yourself and converse at the same level. When appropriate, offer to make public information available in an alternate format.
- Environment: Be sensitive about the setting. A noisy or dark environment, or many people talking at the same time, might make it difficult for people with vision, speech, hearing, or some hidden disabilities to participate fully in a conversation. Be aware of clear paths of travel for people who are blind or use wheelchairs or other mobility aids. Describe goings-on and surroundings (especially obstacles) to a blind person. Be aware that a person with chemical sensitivity may have a reaction to smoke, perfume, or other toxins in the environment
For Specific Disabilities
- Mobility Impairments: A person in a wheelchair is a “wheelchair user” or “uses a wheelchair.” When speaking with someone in a wheelchair or scooter, try sitting or crouching down to his/her approximate height. Never lean on a person’s wheelchair unless you have permission; it’s that person’s private space. Give a push only when asked. Enable people who use crutches, canes, walkers or wheelchairs to keep them within reach, unless requested otherwise.
Be aware of what is and is not accessible to people who use mobility aids such as wheelchairs and walkers.
- Visual Impairments: Be descriptive. You may have to help orient people with visual impairments and let them know what’s coming up. If they are walking, tell them if they have to step up or step down; let them know if the door is to their right or left; and warn them of possible hazards. Be the assistant, not the director. If you are asked for assistance, let a blind person hold your arm to guide them. You don’t have to speak loudly to people with visual impairments. Most of them can hear just fine. Offer to read written information for a person with a visual impairment, when appropriate.
- Speech Impairments: Listen patiently and carefully. Don’t complete sentences for the person unless they look to you for help. Don’t pretend you understand what a person with a speech disability says just to be polite. Ask the person to write down a word if you’re not sure what they are saying.
- Hearing Disabilities: Face people who are deaf or hard of hearing when you talk to them so they can see your lips. When talking to a person who is hard of hearing, slow your rate of speech, speak your words clearly, and increase the level of your voice, if requested. Shouting is often counterproductive.
Not all people who are deaf or hard of hearing can read lips. Communicate in writing or use gestures, if necessary. If you need to attract the attention of a person who is deaf or hard of hearing, touch him/her lightly on the shoulder.
- Learning Disabilities: Don’t assume the person is not listening just because you are getting no verbal or visual feedback. Ask them whether they understand or agree. Don’t assume you have to explain everything to people with learning disabilities. They do not necessarily have a problem with general comprehension. Offer to read written material aloud, when necessary.