General Etiquette for Writing To and Talking About People with Disabilities

  • People with disabilities prefer to be called 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.
Writing To or Talking About People with Disabilities
Acceptable Terms Unacceptable Terms
Person with a disability, people who are disabled Handicap, handicapped person, afflicted
Person who is blind, partially sighted, Low vision, visually impaired The Blind, that blind person
People with cerebral palsy, people with a spinal cord injury, muscular dystrophy Cerebral palsied, spinal cord injured etc. Never identify people solely by their disability.
Deaf, Hard of Hearing Deaf and Dumb — is as bad as it sounds. Inability to hear or speak does not suggest lowered intelligence. Hearing impaired
Person who has a psychiatric disability Psycho, nuts, crazy, schizo, schizophrenic, emotionally disturbed or ill.
Person who has a developmental disability Retarded, childlike
Uses a wheelchair or crutches, a wheelchair user, walks with crutches Crippled, confined/restricted to a wheelchair, wheelchair bound. Most people who use a wheelchair or mobility device do not regard them as confining.
People who do not have a disability Normal–when used as the opposite of “disabled”– implies the person is abnormal.
Person with a Seizure Disorder, He just had a seizure That Epileptic; He/she took a fit

Taken from the Oklahoma Disability Etiquette Handbook, from the Office of Handicapped Concerns, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 2001 and updated by The Learning Accommodations Center, Northern Essex Community College, Haverhill, MA, 2015

Disability Etiquette Tips

How to interact with people who have physical disabilities

Many people do not know what to say or how to act when they meet someone with a physical disability. Treat a person with a disability with the same respect and consideration you would like others to extend to you.

  • People First Language – Individuals with disabilities are individuals first. Example of “people first” language: “Person who uses a wheelchair”, instead of: “wheelchair user” or “wheelchair bound.”
  • Avoid Stereotypes – Student’s success or failure is not based on their disability. Example of stereotype: “student with learning disability cannot be a nurse.”
  • Don’t mention the person’s disability unless he or she talks about it or it is relevant to the conversation.
  • Identify 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 he or she 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 our offer of help declined, and accept it gracefully.
  • Speak directly to person with 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 his or her hands.
  • Do not assume a patronizing conversational style, talking to the person with the disability as though he or she were a child (unless it is a child). Never pat the head of a person with a disability or express pity for his or her 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 on, move 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 a conversation with the person, pull up a chair to place yourself at the person’s eye level.