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10 Etiquette Tips for Interacting with People with Disabilities

August 17, 2017

There are several dos and don’ts when it comes to interacting with others—remember your “pleases” and “thank-yous” and never talk while you’re chewing. But what about when it comes to interacting with people with disabilities?

Here are 10 key etiquette tips for doing it the right way.

1. Offer first

Sometimes the assumption may be when seeing a person with a disability is that they need assistance. If the person appears to require assistance, please make sure to first offer assistance and then await a response before imposing yourself on someone. They may have their own methods of getting from point A to point B, and it’s important to be respectful of that.

2. Respect space

It may be involuntary, but make a special effort to not invade the space of a person with a disability. For example, if someone uses an assistive device, such as a walker or wheelchair, don’t lean on it or touch it. Be respectful of every person’s “personal bubble” the same way you would with any other person with whom you interact.

3. Ask questions

Without getting too personal, it’s okay to ask questions. Avoid probing queries about the nature of a person’s disability, but feel free to ask questions about how you can best accommodate a person—seating positions and proximities that work best for conversations, times of day that work best for interactions, etc.

4. Acknowledge adulthood

One of the trickiest habits to avoid for many people is to remember that interacting with adults with disabilities is just that—interacting with adults. Avoid speaking in patronizing or over-emphasized tones. It signifies that you see your conversation partner as “less than.” Give the same courtesy you would offer any other adult with whom you would interact.

5. Focus

Don’t let yourself drift away from a conversation when interacting with a person with a disability. Have the patience and focus to remain visibly engaged—this shows your mutual respect and makes your interaction a positive one.

6. Greet normally

It’s a common way of saying hello—handshakes are acceptable when interacting with people with disabilities in workplace or professional settings. Even when it comes to individuals with limited or artificial use of their hands, many still see handshaking as customary and inoffensive, so don’t be afraid to offer an extended palm. It is appropriate to shake hands with your left hand when necessary.

7. Accommodate preemptively

When organizing an event or a planned meeting with a person with a disability, feel free to plan ahead. Select locations you know will be accessible for your conversation partner(s), and don’t draw attention to your selection (it will come off as self-congratulatory). Be considerate, and your interactions will be positive and productive.

8. Avoid certain language

If you can, avoid using language that draws attention to a person’s disability or gives negative connotations—avoid language such as “impaired” or “impairment” and, when interacting with people who utilize wheelchairs, avoid “confined” or other negative terminology.

9. Respect service animals

When a person with a disability uses a service animal—commonly guide dogs—don’t interact with the animal. It’s not there to be pet, played with, or to be offered treats. Service animals have been specifically trained to offer a service to its owner, so respect its space.

10. Treat equally

When speaking with a person with a disability, often-times the best approach is to speak to him or her as you would any other friend, family member, or co-worker (depending on the circumstances of your interaction). Your word choice matters—don’t specialize your language to create a feeling of differentness or division between you and your conversation partner.

Stay Involved. Be Social.