Disability communication & etiquette

Words can have a powerful effect. When talking to a person with disability, or speaking with someone about disability, it is important to use suitable language and terminology.

If you are unsure how to talk to a person with a disability, just ask.

When practising disability etiquette, staff with disability feel more comfortable and work more productively. Here are some tips.

The basics

  1. Ask before you help: Adults with disabilities are independent people. Treat them as one and offer help only if the person needs it.
  2. Be sensitive about physical contact: Some people with disabilities depend on their arms for balance. Avoid patting a person on the head or touching their wheelchair, scooter or cane. People with disabilities consider their equipment part of their personal space.
  3. Think before you speak: Always speak direct to the person with a disability, not to their companion, aide or sign language interpreter. Talk to them as with anyone else. Respect their privacy. Consider if it is necessary to ask about the disability. If it isn't, then don't.
  4. Don't assume: People with disabilities are the best judge of what they can or cannot do. Don't decide for them about engaging in activities.
  5. Respond graciously to requests: When people who have a disability ask for an adjustment to their workplace, it shows they feel comfortable enough to ask for what they need. If they get a positive response, they will be a more productive and happy worker.

Terminology

When you're describing someone who has a disability, use 'people first' language - Put the person first. Don't make the disability the person's defining feature. If you are unsure of the correct words to use, don't be afraid to ask the person with disability. They will appreciate your openness and it may help to make them feel more comfortable.

It's okay to use common expressions when talking to people with disabilities. For example, saying, "It was good to see you, " and "See you later", to a person who is blind is acceptable; they use these expressions themselves all the time!

Try to relax and just focus on the person, rather than their disability - offer an apology if you feel you've said something wrong, keep it light and be willing to communicate.

Communication with a person with a disability

Suitable language Avoid
Person with disability Disabled person
Person using a wheelchair Wheelchair bound, confined to a wheelchair
Person who is deaf or blind Deaf person, blind person
Person with an intellectual disability Retarded, mentally handicapped
Person with a mental illness Crazy, nuts, mental