Communication & etiquette

Some people are concerned that they will embarrass themselves or a person with disability by saying or doing the wrong thing. This can lead to uneasiness when meeting a person who has a disability or potentially result in avoidance of people with disability. The most important thing to remember is to treat each person as an individual. A person with disability is just like everyone else- treat them as you would want to be treated.

Basic tips

  • Avoid asking personal questions about someone's disability.
  • Be considerate of the extra time it might take for a person with particular disabilities to do or say something.
  • Be polite and patient when offering assistance, and wait until your offer is accepted. Listen or ask for specific instructions. Be prepared for your offer to be refused.
  • Relax. Anyone can make mistakes. Offer an apology if you feel you've caused embarrassment. Keep a sense of humour and be willing to communicate.

Speaking or writing

  • Refer to a person's disability only when necessary and appropriate.
  • Refer to the individual first, then to their disability (ie "person with disability," rather than "disabled person").
  • The following terms should be avoided because they can have negative meanings: invalid, able-bodied, wheelchair-bound, victim, crippled, defect, suffers from, handicap, a patient.
  • Avoid terms that imply that people with disabilities are overly courageous, brave, special, or superhuman.

Face-to-face communication

  • Use a normal tone of voice when welcoming a person with disability. Do not raise your voice unless you are asked to.
  • Shake hands even if the person has limited hand use or wears an artificial limb. A left-hand shake is acceptable. If the person cannot shake hands, acknowledge them with a smile and a spoken greeting.
  • When planning a meeting or other event, think about specific accommodations a person with a disability might need. If a barrier cannot be avoided, let the person know ahead of time.
  • Look and speak directly to the person with disability, not just to the people accompanying them, including interpreters.
  • Don't patronise or talk down to people with disability. Treat adults as adults.
  • Be patient and give your undivided attention, especially with someone who speaks slowly or with great effort.
  • Never pretend to understand what a person is saying if you don't. Ask the person to repeat or rephrase, or offer them a pen and paper.
  • If requested to by the individual, offer a person with a vision impairment your elbow, to guide rather than propel them.
  • It is okay to use common expressions like "see you soon" or "I'd better be running along".

Mental illness

  • People with psychiatric disability may at times have difficulty dealing with the tasks and interactions of daily life. Their disorder may interfere with their ability to feel, think or relate to others.
  • One of the main obstacles they face is the attitudes that people have about them. Because it is a non-visible disability, chances are you will not even realise that the person has a mental health condition.
  • Stress can affect the person's ability to function. Try to keep the pressure of any given situation to a minimum.
  • People who have psychiatric disability may have different ways of coping with their disability. Some may have trouble picking up on social cues; others may be overly sensitive. One person may be very hyperactive, while someone else may appear lethargic. Treat each person as an individual. Ask what will make them most comfortable and respect their needs to the maximum extent possible.

Social events

  • Work-related social events are an important part of developing a healthy work environment. Social events do not just refer to the annual Christmas party or the family picnic day, but include things like Friday night drinks and sporting groups.
  • Just like any other employee, employees with disability should be included in these events, with considerations made for issues such as:
    • access
    • transport/ parking
    • toilet facilities
    • noise levels and
    • any other relevant factors.
  • Don't assume that a person cannot or does not want to be involved simply because they have a disability - adjustments can almost always be made so that everyone can be included.

For people with disability

  • Don't patronise people with disability. Treat adults as adults.
  • Don't be embarrassed if you use common expressions such as "See you later" to a person with vision impairment.
  • If you offer assistance, wait until the offer is accepted. Be prepared for your offer to be refused.
  • Use a normal tone of voice when extending a welcome. Do not raise your voice unless asked.
  • Speak directly to the person with disability, rather than through a companion, interpreter or aid if they are present.
  • Allow sufficient time for that person to respond to questions.
  • Never pretend to understand if you don't. Instead, repeat what you have understood and allow the person to respond. The response will guide your communication.
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