Disability Etiquette

Engaging People with Disabilities

Don't let fear and uncertainty keep you from getting to know people with disabilities. Fear of the unknown and lack of knowledge about interacting can lead to uneasiness when meeting a person who has a disability.

Remember: a person with a disability is a person with feelings. Treat him or her as you would want to be treated, then let common sense and friendship break down any barriers you may encounter.

What Should You Say?

  • Recognize that people with disabilities are ordinary people with common goals for a home, a job and a family. Talk about people in ordinary terms.
  • Never equate a person with a disability — such as referring to someone as retarded, an epileptic or quadriplegic. These labels are simply medical diagnosis. Use People First Language to tell what a person HAS, not what a person IS.
  • Emphasize abilities not limitations. For example, say “a man walks with crutches,” not” he is crippled.”
  • Avoid negative words that imply tragedy, such as afflicted with, suffers, victim, prisoner and unfortunate.
  • Recognize that a disability is not a challenge to be overcome, and don’t say people succeed in spite of a disability. Ordinary things and accomplishments do not become extraordinary just because they are done by a person with a disability. What is extraordinary are the lengths people with disabilities have to go through and the barriers they have to overcome to do the most ordinary things.
  • Use handicap to refer to a barrier created by people or the environment. Use disability to indicate a functional limitation that interferes with a person’s mental, physical or sensory abilities, such as walking, talking, hearing and learning. For example, people with disabilities who use wheelchairs are handicapped by stairs.
  • Do not refer to a person as bound to or confined to a wheelchair. Wheelchairs are liberating to people with disabilities because they provide mobility.
  • Do not use special to mean segregated, such as separate schools or buses for people with disabilities, or to suggest a disability itself makes someone special.
  • Avoid cute euphemisms such as physically challenged, inconvenienced and differently abled.
  • Promote understanding, respect, dignity and positive outlooks.

What Do You Call People with Disabilities?

Friends, neighbors, coworkers, dad, grandma, Joe’s sister, my big brother, our cousin, Mrs. Schneider, George, husband, wife, colleague, employee, boss, reporter, driver, dancer, mechanic, lawyer, judge, student, educator, home owner, renter, man, woman, adult, child, partner, participant, member, voter, citizen, amigo or any other word you would use for a person.

picture of bob leonard

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