People First: Communicating with and about People with Disabilities

We all find ourselves in situations in which we don't know what to say or do. We may meet someone who moves or acts differently and wonder how we should react. When interacting with people with disabilities, it's important to remember that they are people first. They want to be appreciated, respected, and productive.


Communicating with People with Disabilities


1. If you offer assistance to a person with a disability, wait until the offer is accepted and then listen to or ask for instructions.


If you are asked to assist a person who uses a wheelchair up or down a curb, ask if the person prefers to be facing forward or backward. Hold the push handles securely and keep the chair tilted back when ascending or descending.


When guiding a person who has a visual impairment, walk alongside and slightly ahead. Let the person hold your arm so your body's motion lets the person know what to expect. On stairs, guide the person's hand to the bannister or handrail. When seating, place the person's hand on the back of the chair or arm. Avoid escalators and revolving doors, which may be disorientating and dangerous. Never distract a "seeing eye" or service dog.


2. When speaking for a length of time to a person who uses a wheelchair or crutches, place yourself at eye level with that person.


It's not polite to talk down to that person.


3. When talking to a person with a disability, speak directly to that person rather than through a companion or sign language interpreter.


4. When introduced to a person with a disability, it is appropriate to offer to shake hands.


A person with limited hand use or who wears an artificial limb can usually shake hands. Shaking hands with the left hand is also an acceptable greeting. 


5. When meeting or speaking to someone who is visually impaired, always identify yourself before speaking.


When in a group, remember to identify the person to whom you are speaking, as well as yourself.


6. Treat adults as adults.


Address people with disabilities by their first names only after they have given permission or when extending the same familiarity to others. Also, never patronize people who use wheelchairs by patting them on the head or shoulder.


7. Avoid leaning on or hanging onto a person's wheelchair.


It's similar to leaning or hanging onto a person. The chair is part of the personal space of the person who uses it.


8. Listen attentively when you're talking with a person who has difficulty speaking.


Be patient and wait for the person to finish, rather than correcting or speaking for that person. If necessary, ask short questions that require short answers, or a nod or shake of the head. Don't pretend to understand if you are having difficulty. Instead, repeat what you understand, and allow the person to elaborate.


9. To get the attention of a person who is deaf, tap the person on the shoulder or wave your hand.


Look directly at the person, and speak clearly, slowly and expressively to determine if the person can read your lips. For those people who do read lips, place yourself in their direct view and keep hands and food away from your mouth when speaking.


If a person has a hearing impairment, avoid shouting. Hearing aids make sound louder not clearer.


10. Relax. Don't be embarrassed if you happen to use accepted common phrases that seem to relate to a person's disability, such as "See you later" or "Did you hear about that?"


Chances are the person will understand.


Communicating About People with Disabilities


"Handicapped man confined to a wheelchair..." "A girl stricken with cerebral palsy..."


The use of negative words can create incorrect perceptions of people with disabilities. Such negative attitudes are often the most difficult barriers for people with disabilities to overcome. Even the word "handicap" is considered unacceptable by most people with disabilities because of the word's origin. "Handicap" is derived from "cap in hand," a phrase associated with beggars.


When describing a person with a disability, refer to the person first.


Rather than saying or writing "blind man" or "afflicted with blindness" refer to "a person with visual impairment" or "a person who is blind."


This also applies when you are describing a group of people with disabilities. Do not label a group of individuals as "The disabled", which puts the focus on their disabilities. "People with disabilities" or "individuals who use wheelchairs" places people first.


Use respectful and descriptive words.


Examples of acceptable descriptions include "a person who is...", "a person with a..." or "person who has..."


• Blind/visual impairment/blindness;
• cerebral palsy;
• communication disorder/speech impairment;
• deaf/deafness;
• developmental disability;
• disability;
• epilepsy;
• hearing impairment;
• paraplegia;
• psychiatric disability;
• seizure disorder;
• inability to speak; and,
• wheelchair-user




What is a Disability?

The definition of a developmental disability includes, but is not limited to: an intellectual disability, autism, cerebral palsy, a severe head injury that occurred before the age of 22, or a severe seizure disorder.


Under federal law, "developmental disability" means a severe, chronic disability of an individual that:


  • attributable to a mental or physical impairment or combination of mental and physical impairments
  • manifests before the individual attains age 22
  • is likely to continue indefinitely
  • results in substantial functional limitations in three or more of the following areas of major life activity:
    • self care
    • receptive and expressive language
    • learning
    • reflects the individual's need for a combination and sequence of special, interdisciplinary, or generic services, individualized supports, or other forms of assistance that are of lifelong or extended duration and are individually planned and coordinated.
    • economic self-sufficiency; and
    • capacity for independent living
    • self-direction
    • mobility


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