Strategies & Tips

Interacting with People With Disabilities

General Considerations

  • People with disabilities are entitled to the courtesies extended to anyone, including their personal privacy. If you don't generally ask people about their sex lives, complexions, or incomes, then don't ask people with disabilities these questions.
  • Do not assume a person with a disability needs your help; ask before doing.
  • If assistance is offered and the person declines, do not insist. If the person accepts, ask how best to help and follow directions.
  • Avoid actions and words suggesting the person should be treated differently. It is appropriate to ask a person in a wheelchair to go for a walk or to ask a blind person if he or she sees what you mean.
  • Don't lean or hang on someone's wheelchair. Wheelchairs are an extension of personal space for people who use them.
  • Treat adults as adults. Call a person by his/her first name only when extending this familiarity to everyone present.

In Conversation

  • When talking with someone who has a disability, speak directly to that person rather than through a companion who may be along.
  • Relax. Don't be embarrassed if accepted, common expressions are used, such as "See you later" or "Got to be running along," that seems to relate to the person's disability.
  • To get the attention of a person who has a hearing disability, tap the person on the shoulder or wave your hand. Look directly at the person and speak clearly, slowly, and expressively to establish if the person can read lips. Not all persons with hearing impairments can lip-read. Those who do will rely on facial expressions and other body language to help in understanding. Show consideration by standing facing the light source and keeping hands and food away from the mouth when speaking. Keep mustaches well-trimmed. Shouting won't help. Written notes will.
  • When talking with a person in a wheelchair for more than a few minutes, sit eye level with the wheelchair user.
  • When greeting a person with a severe loss of vision, always self-identify and identify other persons who may be present. Say, for example, "On my right is Missy Redhead." When conversing in a group, remember to say the name of the person being referred to as to give a vocal cue. Speak in a normal tone of voice, indicate when movement from one place to another is made, and let it be known when the conversation is at an end.
  • Give whole, unhurried attention when talking to a person who has difficulty speaking. Keep the manner encouraging rather than correcting, be patient rather than speak for the person. When necessary, ask short questions that require short answers or a nod or shake of the head. Never pretend to understand if having difficulty doing so. Repeat what is understood. The person's reaction will be a clue in and guide to understanding.
  • Allow the student the same anonymity as other students. Avoid pointing out the student or the alternative arrangements to the rest of the class.
  • When a student uses a Service Animal, it is important to understand that it is a working animal rather than a pet. It should be left alone unless the student states otherwise. Similarly, a wheelchair should be considered to be a part of a person's physical space, and treated with respect.

Courtesies for Physical Disabilities

  • When giving directions to a person in a wheelchair, consider distance, weather conditions, and physical obstacles such as stairs, curbs, and steep hills.
  • Use specifics such as "left a hundred feet" or "right two yards" when directing a person with a visual impairment.
  • Be considerate of the extra time it might take for a person with a disability to get things done or said. Let the person set the pace in walking and talking.
  • When planning events involving persons with disabilities, consider their needs ahead of time.
  • If an insurmountable barrier exists, let the student know about it prior to the event.