Disability Etiquette

People who encounter disabled students often feel apprehensive about discussing a disability in fear of offending the student.   The best advice in working with a disabled student is TO TREAT THEM THE SAME AS NON-DISABLED STUDENTS.  Do not feel awkward about approaching a student with questions about accommodations for their disability.  Often students are the best resource for how their disabilities have been accommodated in the past!

Working with a person with a disability requires sensitivity and basic common sense. By using words with dignity, we encourage equality for everyone.

Words with Dignity

Avoid these words

Person with a disability/disabled

Cripple/handicapped/handicap/those people/invalid (literally invalid means “not valid”

Person who has/person with

Victim/afflicted with

Uses a wheelchair

Restricted, confined to a wheelchair/wheelchair bound



Learning disability/mental retardation/developmental delay/ADD/ADHD


Psychiatric history/psychiatric disability/emotional disorder/mental illness

Crazy/insane/lunatic/mental patient/wacko

Disabled since birth/born with

birth defect

Deaf/does not voice for themselves/nonvocal

Deaf mute/ deaf and dumb


Normal (referring to non-disabled persons as “normal” insinuates that people with disabilities are abnormal.)

Other terms which should be avoided because of negative connotations and tend to evoke pity and fear include:








stricken with







physically challenged


differently abled








Preferred terminology in working with persons with disabilities include:


No visual capability

legally blind/low vision

Some visual capability

hearing loss/hard of hearing

Some hearing capability

residual limb

Post-amputation of a limb


Paralysis of both arms and legs


Loss of function of the lower body only


Paralysis of one side of the body

Common Courtesies

  • Don’t feel obligated to act as a caregiver to people with disabilities.  Offer assistance, but wait until your offer is accepted before you help.  Listen to any instructions the person may give.
  • Leaning on a person’s wheelchair is similar to leaning or hanging on a person.  It is considered annoying and rude.  The chair is a part of one’s personal body space.  Don’t hang on it!
  • Share the same social courtesies with people with disabilities that would share with someone else.  If you shake hands with people you meet, offer your hand to everyone you meet, regardless of disability.  If the person is unable to shake your hand, he or she will tell you.
  • When offering assistance to a person with a visual impairment, allow the person to take your arm.  This will enable you to guide, rather than propel or lead the person.  Use specific directions, such as “left one-hundred feet” or “right two yards” when directing a person with a visual impairment.
  • When planning events that involve persons with disabilities, consider their needs before choosing a location.  Even if people with disabilities will not attend, select an accessible spot.  You wouldn’t think of holding an event where other minorities could not attend, so don’t exclude people with disabilities.

Conversation Courtesies

  • When speaking about people with disabilities, emphasize achievements, abilities and individual qualities.  Portray them as they are in real life: as parents, employees, business owners, students, etc.
  • When talking to a person, who has a physical disability, speak directly to that person, not through a companion.  For people who communicate through sign language, speak to them, not to the interpreter.
  • Relax!  Don’t be embarrassed if you use common expressions such as “See you later” or “Gotta run.”
  • To get the attention of a person, who has a hearing loss, tap them on the shoulder or wave.  Look directly at the person and speak clearly, slowly and expressively to establish if they read lips.  Not all people with hearing loss can read lips.  Those who do, rely on facial expressions and body language for understanding.  Stay in the light and keep food, hands and other objects away from your mouth.  Shouting won’t help.  Written notes will.  Use an interpreter if possible.
  • When talking to a person in a wheelchair for more than a few minutes, place yourself at eye level with that person.  This will spare both of you a sore neck!
  • When greeting a person with severe loss of vision, always identify yourself and others.  For example, say, “On my right is John Smith.”  Remember to identify persons to whom you are speaking.  Speak in a normal tone of voice and indicate when the conversation is over.  Let them know when you move from one place to another.”