General Etiquette for Writing To and Talking About People with Disabilities

It is generally accepted to use the term “people with disabilities” not “disabled people”.

People with disabilities are not conditions or diseases. Never identify people solely by their disability. They are individuals first and only secondarily do they have one or more disabling conditions.

Because no two people with disabilities are exactly alike, it is best to ask the person and follow the person’s leas when it comes to what works best for them.

Respectful Language

People-first language is based on the idea that the person is not defined by their disability.  An example of this is “People who are blind” instead of “Blind People.”

Identify-first language means that the person feels that the disability is a strong part of who they are and they are proud of their disability. For example, “Disabled person,” versus “person who has a disability.”

Ultimately, people with disabilities decide how their disability should be stated. Some may choose people-first language, while others use identify-first language. At this time, people first language is recommended for use by anyone who doesn’t have a disability and for professionals who are writing or speaking about people with disabilities.

Writing To or Talking About People with Disabilities
Respectful Disrespectful
Person with a disability, People who are disabled Never Use: Handicap, handicapped person, disable person, afflicted, sped kid
Person who is blind, Person who is partially sighted, Person with low vision, partially sighted Never Use: The Blind, or that blind person, sight impaired
People with cerebral palsy, People with a spinal cord injury, People with muscular dystrophy Never Use: Cerebral palsied, spinal cord injured, lame, gimp, crippled, etc.
Person who is Deaf, Person who is deaf, Person who is Hard of Hearing Never Use:  Hearing impaired,  deaf/mute    Deaf and dumb is as bad as it sounds. Inability to hear or speak does not suggest lowered intelligence.
Person who has a psychiatric disability Never Use: Psycho, nuts, crazy, schizo, schizophrenic, emotionally disturbed or ill.
Person who has a intellectual disability Never Use: Retarded, childlike
Person who uses a wheelchair or crutches, Person who walks with crutches Never Use: Crippled, confined/restricted to a wheelchair, wheelchair bound. Most people who use a wheelchair or mobility device do not regard them as confining.
Person with a seizure disorder, They just had a seizure Never Use: That epileptic, they took a fit
Person who has Down syndrome Never Use: They have Down’s, mentally retarded
Person who has autism Never Use: Autistic
People who do not have a disability Never Use: Normal – When used as the opposite of “disabled,” implies the person is abnormal.

Taken from the Oklahoma Disability Etiquette Handbook and Northwest ADA Center and updated in 2019 by the Center for Accessibility Resources & Services, Northern Essex Community College, Haverhill, MA

Disability Etiquette Tips

How to interact with people who have disabilities

Many people do not know what to say or how to act when they meet someone with a physical disability. People with disabilities have the same feelings and concerns as you. The general rule is to treat a person with a disability with the same respect and consideration you would like others to extend to you.

It is okay to use phrases such as “Want to go for a walk?” to a person who uses a wheelchair; “Have you seen…?” to an individual who is blind; or “Did you hear about…?” to an individual who is deaf.

  • People-First Language: Individuals with disabilities are individuals first. Example: “A person who uses a wheelchair,” instead of: “wheelchair user” or “wheelchair bound.”  Avoid disempowering terminology such as “invalid, handicapped, victim, crippled.”
  • Avoid Stereotypes: Students’ success or failure is not based on their disability. Example: “A student with learning disability cannot be a nurse.”
  • Don’t Mention a Person’s Disability: Unless they talk about it or it is relevant to the conversation.
  • Identify yourself: Announce yourself to someone with a visual disability (so they know who it is!) and others who may be present. Don’t leave the person without excusing yourself first. As you enter an unfamiliar room with the person, describe the layout and location of the furniture.
  • ASK First if Someone Needs Assistance: If it appears that a person with a disability needs help, ask if they would like your assistance. Wait until your offer is accepted. Ask for specific instructions if you are unsure how to help. Be prepared to have your offer of help declined and accept it gracefully.
  • Speak Directly: Address the person with a disability or who is Deaf, instead of their Personal Care Assistant (PCA) or Interpreter. Be considerate of the extra time it might take for a person with a disability to do or say something. Be prepared for various devices that augment speech. Don’t hesitate to talk with someone who uses a computer with synthesized speech. Do not pretend to understand the person with a disability if you did not. Simply say what you think you heard the person say, and ask to be corrected, if you have misunderstood. You can also offer pencil and paper if it is clear that the person has use of their hands. When speaking to a person who is Hard of Hearing or uses a hearing aid, face them directly, speak clearly and at a moderate pace, but do not shout. Shouting distorts the normal lip formations and will hinder a person’s ability to lip-read. It also distorts sounds received by a hearing aid. Use gestures, sign language or an interpreter to communicate.
  • Do Not Assume a Patronizing Conversational Style: Speaking to the person with the disability as though they were a child (unless it IS a child!) is unacceptable. Never pat the head of a person with a disability or express pity for their condition.
  • Shaking with Left Hands is Acceptable: Not everyone can shake hands with the right hand. For those who cannot use their arms or hands at all, gently touch the person on the shoulder or arm to welcome and acknowledge their presence.
  • Never Lean or Hold onto a Wheelchair: When speaking to a person in a wheelchair. The chair is part of the space that belongs to the person who uses it. If you will be engaging in conversation with the person, pull up a chair to place yourself at the person’s eye level.    
  • When Approaching Service Animals: Please, remember that the service animal is working.  In general, acknowledgment of the service animal, in any way, may interrupt it while it is performing its tasks.