Disability Etiquette

The Disability Resource Center embraces diversity and disability is part of that diversity. To help the campus be a more disability-inclusive space, it’s important for the campus community to have a basic understanding of “disability etiquette” as a means to respectfully communicating with and about people with disabilities. This page offers some general guidelines, some better practices, and general etiquette for interacting with people with disabilities.

This is not a rule book! We repeat: This is not a rule book! This is not a step-by-step “how to” process. The most important thing to remember when interacting with people with disabilities is that they are people. Everyone has their own uniqueness, and personal preferences. Use common sense and courtesy to guide interactions with people with disabilities; behave in the same way with people with disabilities as you would with anyone else.

The D.C. Office of Disability Rights created a Disability Sensitivity Training Video that also covers some general etiquette for interacting with people with disabilities that is equally entertaining as it is informative. We highly encourage everyone to watch.

D.C. Office of Disability Rights created a Disability Sensitivity Training Video


  • Ask before offering assistance. Do not assume a person with a disability wants or needs help. The individual with a disability is the most qualified person to tell you about their needs.
    • If assistance is requested or accepted, listen to or ask for instructions.
    • If assistance is not requested or accepted and/or they say they don’t want or need help, that should be respected.
  • Make eye contact and speak directly to the person and not through the individual’s companion or interpreter.
  • A person’s disability is often a private matter. First inquire whether they are open to talking about it before asking questions.
  • “People with disabilities are not looking to be ‘inspirational.’ If their example motivates you, then great. Just remember that their life is a lot more like your own than you might imagine” (Life on Wheels. Gary Karp).
  • Be aware of a tendency to exaggerate the impact of a disability based on stereotypes and myths about the type of disability. Do not make assumptions about what the person can or cannot do.
  • Most disabilities do not affect a person’s I.Q.
  • Mainly, relax. Treat the person with the same respect and courtesy that you have for everyone else.

Cognitive Disabilities

(e.g. Learning Disabilities, ADHD, brain injury)

  • If you are in a noisy or visually distracting area, consider moving to a quiet or private location.
  • If you receive no verbal or visual feedback while speaking, ask the person if they understood what you have said. Be prepared to repeat your statements if necessary.
  • Do not assume you have to explain everything to a person with a cognitive disability; s/he does not necessarily have a problem with general comprehension.
  • Be patient and flexible. The individual may need extra time for making decisions or responding.

Deaf or Hard of Hearing

  • Face the individual when speaking so they can utilize visual cues to assist with communication. Remember gum chewing, hand placement and a turned back all interfere with an ability to lip-read and observe facial expressions.
  • Enunciate clearly, but not in an exaggerated fashion. Speak at a normal rate.
  • When possible, pick a quiet location. Background noise can significantly interfere with any residual hearing.
  • Speak directly to the person and not to a sign language interpreter, captioner or friend.
  • When communication breaks down re-phrase rather than repeat.
  • To get a person’s attention, use a hand motion or wave in their field of peripheral vision. Sometimes a stomp on the floor or a light pounding on a shared table may work best.
  • Be patient. When asked to repeat your statements, do not say, “Never mind.” Consider written communication.

Visual Disabilities

  • Be descriptive to help orient the person to their surroundings. While walking, inform the individual about possible hazards, as well as when to step up or down. Tell how many steps to expect. Describe where objects in the room are (e.g. “the computer mouse is to your left”).
  • When offering a seat, lightly place the person’s hand on the back or arm of the chair.
  • Allow the individual to hold onto your arm as a guide, rather than holding onto the person. Do not attempt to touch or guide them unless you have permission.
  • Never pet or distract a guide dog.
  • When approaching or leaving, speak to the person so they are aware of your presence. Identify yourself in a clear and normal tone of voice. It is not necessary to speak loudly; people with visual impairments generally do not have difficulty hearing.
  • Offer to read aloud written materials when appropriate.

Mobility/Orthpedic Disabilities

  • A wheelchair is part of the personal body space of the person who uses it. Do not lean or hang on a person’s chair.
  • If possible place yourself at the wheelchair user’s eye level.
  • It’s okay to use common phrases such as “go for a walk” even if the person’s disability prevents literal walking.
  • Do not push a person’s wheelchair unless asked or given permission.
  • Offer to provide assistance if the individual is having difficulty opening a door.
  • People who have limited hand use or an artificial limb can usually shake hands. Shaking hands with the left hand is also acceptable.

Speech Disabilities

  • Listen patiently. Do not complete sentences for a person unless they asks for help.
  • If you do not understand what the person said, do not pretend that you do. Ask them to repeat what they said and/or spell a word if necessary.
  • Try asking questions that only require short answers or a nod of the head.
  • If you have difficulty understanding the person, consider writing as a mode of communication, but first ask the individual if this is acceptable.

Chronic Systemic Disorders

(e.g. Lupus, Chronic Fatigue, etc)

  • At times it may be necessary to repeat information or write down important details for the person. They may have concentration or memory difficulties due to pain or fatigue.
  • Do not assume the person is under the influence of a substance if they seem to have difficulty walking steadily.
  • Be sensitive to issues of stamina. Meetings/visits may need to be shorter. Ask the person what they prefer.
  • Be cognizant of not labeling the individual as lazy or irresponsible. Systemic disorders may require a person to obtain a significant amount of rest.
Last modified: May 30, 2024