Disability Etiquette Tips

Persons Using Wheelchairs:

  • A person’s wheelchair is part of his or her body space and should be treated with respect. Don’t hang or lean on it unless you have the person permission. Don’t be tempted to pat a person in a wheelchair on the head, as it is a degrading gesture.
  • Speak directly to the person and if the conversation lasts more than a few minutes, sit down or kneel to get yourself on the same level as the person in the wheelchair.
  • Don’t worry about using expressions such as “running along” or “walked away” when speaking to a person in a wheelchair. These sayings are used in every day conversation and are not offensive.
  • Wheelchair use provides freedom. Don’t assume that using a wheelchair is in itself a tragedy. It is a means of freedom, which allows the person to move about independently. Structural barriers in public places create inconveniences for wheelchair users. You can help by advocating for wheelchair access.
  • When giving wheelchair users directions, be aware of architectural barriers such as narrow doorways, stairs, curbs, etc.
  • When a person transfers out of the wheelchair to a chair, toilet, car or other object, do not move the wheelchair out of reaching distance. Some people who use a wheelchair for mobility can walk with aid, such as braces, walkers, or crutches. They use wheelchairs some of the time to conserve energy and move about more quickly.
  • Don’t classify persons who use wheelchairs as sick. Although wheelchairs are often associated with hospitals, they are used more frequently to help people with mobility disabilities get around their home, work and community.
  • Relationships are Important. Have eye and physical contact with chair users in the same respectful manner you would a person that isn’t in a wheelchair.

Persons with Speech Difficulties:

  • Give whole, unhurried attention to the person who has difficulty speaking.
  • Keep your manner encouraging rather than correcting.
  • Rather than speak for the person, allow extra time for the conversation and be patient. Do not finish a person’s sentence.
  • If you have difficulty understanding, don’t pretend that you do. Repeat as much as you do understand. The person’s reaction will guide you and clue you in.

Communication with Persons with Cognitive/Language Impairments:

  • Use a calm voice and be reassuring. Use short sentences and simple, concrete words.
  • Do not argue with the person. If the person tells you he is waiting for his wife to come and you know that his wife died several years ago, do not state “You know your wife died several years go.” The person will either get mad because you are wrong or become grief stricken because he has just learned his wife died. It would be better to reassure the person that everything is all right; his wife has just been delayed. Then divert his attention to an activity.
  • Treat each person as an individual with talents and abilities deserving of respect and dignity. Individuals can usually tell if they are being talked down to like a child which can make a situation worse.
  • Give extra time for the person to process what you are saying and to respond. Look for signs of stress and/or confusion.

Persons with Hearing Loss:

  • Hearing aids do not guarantee that the person can hear and understand speech. They increase volume, not necessarily clarity.
  • Get the person’s attention with a wave of the hand, or a tap on the shoulder. Move away from background noise.
  • Speak clearly and slowly, but without exaggerating your lip movements or shouting. Be flexible in your language. If the person experiences difficulty understanding what you are saying, switch the words around and rephrase your statement rather than keep repeating. If difficulty persists, write down what you are saying.
  • Many persons with hearing loss read lips. Place yourself facing the light source and keep hands, cigarettes and food away from your mouth when talking in order to provide a clear view of your face.
  • When an interpreter accompanies a person, direct your remarks to the person rather than to the interpreter.
  • Look directly at the person and speak expressively. The person who has a severe hearing loss will rely on your facial expressions, gestures, and body movements to assist in understanding. Use sign language if you and the person are both familiar with it. Ask what the person prefers.

Persons with Vision Loss:

  • People with visual impairments do not necessarily hear better than others or have ultra developed sense of touch. They may have trained their other senses to assist them with mobility, etc.
  • When you enter a room, indicate who you are. Let the person know when you are leaving the room.
  • When talking to a person with a visual impairment, begin by identifying yourself and that you are speaking to them.
  • When addressing a person who is blind, it is helpful to call them by name or touch them gently on the arm.
  • When offering your assistance, do not grab a person’s cane or arm, this can be very disorienting for the person. If you are walking with a person who is blind, offer your arm for them to hold. The person may feel most comfortable walking a half step behind. Walk at your normal pace. It is helpful to speak casually and naturally about the terrain, objects and building you are passing as you walk. Stop for curbs and steps; let the person know if they should step up or down. Once you have indicated up or down, proceed and they will follow.
  • Don’t worry about using words such as “see” or “look” in your conversation. These words are apart of every day conversation and are not offensive.
  • Not all visually impaired people read Braille. Ask the person what alternative format they prefer.
  • Do not pet a guide dog unless you have been given permission – these dogs are working and they need to concentrate.
  • It is appropriate to offer your help if you think it is needed but don’t be surprised if the person would rather do it himself. Ask first!
  • Remember that you’ll need to communicate any written information orally.

Additional Suggestions:

  • Don’t discourage children from asking questions about disabilities. Children have a natural curiosity that needs to be satisfied so they do not develop fearful or misleading attitudes. Most people are not offended by questions children ask them about their disabilities or wheelchairs.
  • Remember that the person with a disability is a person like anyone else.
  • Appreciate and emphasize what the person can do.
  • It is appropriate to offer your help if you think it is needed but don’t be surprised or offended if the person would rather do it himself. If you are uncertain how to assist, ask the one who needs assistance.

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