Disability Etiquette & Advocacy

Just like the rest of life, there are few “rules” that apply perfectly to everyone – except one. Don’t Assume. We believe the number one rule when interacting with anyone you encounter in life, no matter their ability, is don’t assume. Don’t assume their level of ability or disability, don’t assume they want your help or don’t want help, don’t assume they want to participate in any particular activity – ask.

On whole, we hear from our clients that they want to be treated the same way everyone else is treated. Each person is unique and has their own interests, preferences, and abilities.

A great place to start is a conversation.

Keep this quick tips in mind:

  1. Language matters
    1. Always use person-first language.
      1. “person with a disability”, not “disabled person”
      2. “child with autism”, not “autistic child”
      3. “an individual with epilepsy”, not ” an epileptic”
    2. Proper language is more than about being “politically correct”
      1. Avoid phrases like “cripple”, “handicap”, “wheelchair-bound”, “spastic” –these phrases have very negative connotations for the disability community.
      2. Never use “retard” or “retarded”, for any reason, EVER
  2. Treat a person with a disability as what they are – a person.
    1. Treat people they way you want others to treat you
      1. Always ask first – be willing to accept no to your offer
      2. Realize that different people have different preferences
      3. Have respect for personal boundaries
      4. Don’t ask about things you wouldn’t want people to ask you about
    2. Treat adults as adults
      1. Don’t talk down to anyone
      2. Don’t use “baby talk”
    3. Communicate
      1. Many people with severe disabilities use communication devices. It may take a little longer for them to communicate – stop and take the time.
      2. Others may use gestures to communicate. Ask them if you’re understanding their gesture.
      3. It is perfectly fine to ask someone to repeat what they’ve just said if you don’t understand them. Don’t pretend if you didn’t – clarify.
      4. Talk to everyone in the room. Don’t only communicate with the parent or caregiver.
  3. Relax! It’s okay to ask a person in a wheelchair to “go for a walk” or tell a person who is blind “I’ll see you later”. These are parts of our everyday language. Don’t get yourself so worried about making a mistake that you don’t interact with people with disabilities at all. If you make a mistake – it’s okay. We’re all human.

There are some outstanding resources available to help guide you through the world of disability etiquette and help you gain confidence that you’re doing the right thing. Below you’ll find just a few.

United Cerebral Palsy (UCP)

“The rules of etiquette and good manners for dealing with people with disabilities are generally the same as the rules for good etiquette in society. These guidelines address specific issues which frequently arise for people with disabilities in terms of those issues related to disability and outline basic etiquette for working with people with different kinds of disabilities.”

Learn more from the Easter Seals disability etiquette page.

United Spinal Association

“The National Organization on Disability (NOD) reports that more than 54 million Americans have a disability. This [information] is for anyone—with or without a disability—who wants to interact more effectively with people with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 was conceived with the goal of integrating people with disabilities into all aspects of life, particularly the workplace and the marketplace.”

“Practicing disability etiquette is an easy way to make people with disabilities feel welcome. You don’t have to feel awkward when dealing with a person who has a disability. This [information] provides some basic tips for you to follow. And if you are ever unsure how to interact with a person who has a disability, just ask!”

Download any of their FREE resource booklets.

Easter Seals, Disability Services

“People with disabilities are entitled to the same courtesies you would extend to anyone, including personal privacy. If you find it inappropriate to ask people about their sex lives, or their complexions, or their incomes, extend the courtesy to people with disabilities.”

Learn more from the Easter Seals disability etiquette page.