Engaging people with disabilities

Meeting a person with a disability

Two people who are blind speaking at a city council meeting
  • A handshake is NOT a standard greeting for everyone. When in doubt, ASK the person whether he or she would like to shake hands with you. A smile along with a spoken greeting is always appropriate.
  • Speak directly to the person with a disability, not just to persons who may be accompanying him or her.
  • Don't mention the person's disability, unless he or she talks about it or it is relevant to the conversation.
  • Treat adults as adults. Don't patronize or talk down to people with disabilities. Likewise, don't lavish praise on a person with a disability for having the "courage" to overcome a disability.
  • 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. Ask the person to repeat or rephrase.
  • It is okay to use common expressions like "see you soon" or "I'd better be running along."
  • Relax. We all make mistakes. Offer an apology if you forget some courtesy. Keep a sense of humor and a willingness to communicate.

Interacting with a wheelchair user

A smiling young lady in her power chair
  • Personal space - Do not push, lean on, or hold onto a person's wheelchair unless asked by the person. The wheelchair is a part of his or her personal space. Ask before you help.
  • Eye-to-Eye - Try to put ourself at eye level when talking with someone in a wheelchair. Sit or kneel in front of the person.
  • Clear a path - Rearrange furniture or objects to accommodate a wheelchair before the person arrives. Place as many items as possible within grasp.
  • Know the geography - If asked, know where someone can find accessible restrooms, telephones, and water fountains in the building.
  • Directions - When giving directions to a person in a wheelchair, consider distance, weather conditions, and physical obstacles (curbs, stairs, steep hills, etc.)

Meeting a person with a disability that affects speech

A young boy holding a puppy
  • Pay attention, be patient, and wait for the person to complete a word or thought. Do not finish it for the person.
  • Ask the person to repeat what is said if you do not understand. Tell the person what you heard and see if it is close to what he or she is saying. If an understanding is not reached, suggest another way to communicate (example: write it down.)
  • Be prepared for persons who use assistive technology to enhance or augment speech. Don't be afraid to communicate with someone who uses an alphabet board or a computer to communicate.

Engaging someone who is blind

A lady who is blind playing a guitar with her service animal at her feet.
  • Greetings - When meeting the person, identify yourself and introduce others who may be present.
  • Departing - Don't leave the person without informing him/her.
  • Guiding - When asked to guide someone, never push or pull the person. Offer your arm and allow him or her to reach for you, then walk slightly ahead. Point out doors, stairs, and curbs as you approach them.
  • The Landscape - As you guide a person into a room, describe the layout, the location of furniture, and note who else is nearby.
  • Details Matter - Be specific when describing the location of objects. (Example: "There is a chair three feet from you at eleven o'clock.")
  • Guide Dogs/Canes - Don't pet or distract a guide dog. The dog is responsible for its owner's safety and is always working. It is not a pet. Do not touch or move the person's cane.

Meeting someone with a cognitive impairment that affects learning/intelligence, or brain function

A hug and victory sign for two ladies
  • Keep your communication simple. Use short sentences and rephrase comments or questions for better clarity. Refrain from the use of baby talk.
  • Stay on point by focusing on one topic at a time.
  • Allow the person time to respond, ask questions and clarify your comments.
  • Focus on the person as he or she responds to you and pay attention to body language.
  • Repetition - If appropriate, repeat back any messages to confirm mutual understanding.
  • Direction - Use of clear signage or pictograms can help when getting around a facility.

Communicating with someone who is deaf or uses an assisted hearing device

a young lady signing: I love you
  • Let the person take the lead in establishing the communication mode, such as lip-reading, sign language, or writing notes.
  • Talk directly to the person even when a sign language interpreter is present.
  • If the person lip-reads, face him or her directly, speak clearly and with a moderate pace.
  • With some people it may help to simplify your sentences and use more facial expressions and body language.
  • Gain the person's attention prior to speaking. Wave your hand or tap the person on the shoulder or arm.

People First Language

recognizes that someone is a person first, and that the disability is a part of, but not the whole person.

Words or Phrases to Avoid Preferred Alternatives
a disabled person person with a disability
the handicapped or crippled person with a disability
normal, healthy or able-bodied person/people people without disabilities, typical person
wheelchair-bound or confined to a wheelchair a wheelchair user, uses a wheelchair
birth defect or affliction congenital disability or birth anomaly
a victim of multiple sclerosis (or other condition) has multiple sclerosis, has (insert condition)
mentally retarded, a retard, slow or special person with an intellectual or developmental disability
Downs person person with Down syndrome
the epileptic or epileptics, fits or epileptic fits person with epilepsy, person with seizure disorder, seizure or epileptic episode
the mentally ill, crazy, psycho, nuts, mental case person with a mental disorder
the blind, or blind as a bat people who are blind or visually impaired
deaf mute, deaf and dumb person who is hard of hearing, person who is deaf