Introduction to Disability Etiquette

Disability Related Definitions
  • Impairment: refers to physical or mental loss, abnormality or injury that causes a limitation in one or more major life functions
  • Disability: refers to a physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities
  • Handicap: describes a condition that markedly restricts a person’s ability to function physically, mentally, or socially
  • Accessible: easy to approach, enter, operate, participate in, and/or use safely by a person with a disability (i.e.: site, facility, work environment, service or program
  • Assistive/Adaptive Equipment: devices that assist in activities or mobility, including wheelchairs, prostheses, ramps, bars, changes in furniture heights and environmental control units, workplace equipment, and sports equipment
  • Challenged: Impaired or disabled in a specified respect
Creating a Disability Friendly Environment

Things to remember when you are around a person with a disability:

People Who Use Wheelchairs:

  • Do not make contact with a person’s wheelchair unless asked to do so
  • Assistance may be offered, but do not insist upon it
  • Do not grab, push, or lean on a person’s wheelchair unless asked to do so
  • Do not ask a person in a wheelchair to hold your coat or other items for you
  • Always make eye contact when talking to a person in a wheelchair
  • If possible, place yourself on the same eye level with the person in a wheelchair Remember that it is uncomfortable for a person who is seated to look straight up for a long period of time
  • It is not necessary to be sensitive to words like “running” and “walking”
  • Always keep accessibility in mind. Ask yourself, for example, “is the hallway blocked?” “Is the path to the restroom clear?” “Can this person perform a weight shift?”
  • Keep the ramps and wheelchair accessible doors to your building unlocked and unblocked

People Who Are Visually Impaired:

  • Use the person’s name when starting a conversation so they know who is speaking. Speak directly to the person using a normal tone of voice. Let the person know when you need to end a conversation
  • When offering a handshake, say something like, “shall we shake hands?” if the person extends a hand first, be sure to take it or to explain why if you can’t
  • Ask the person if he or she wants help in getting about. When providing assistance, allow the person to take your arm, enabling you to guide. Warn the person of any steps or changes in level
  • When offering seating, place the person’s hand on the back or arm of the seat.
  • Do not pet or distract a guide dog unless the owner has given permission
  • If you need to leave a person who is blind, inform them you are leaving and ask them if they need anything before your departure
  • If you have changed your facility (rearranged furniture) notify those with visual impairments
  • When offering goods to a person who is blind, let them know where it is according to a clock orientation

People With Speech Difficulties:

  • Give whole, unhurried attention to the person who has difficulty speaking
  • Keep your manner encouraging as opposed to correcting
  • Rather than speak for the person, allow extra time and give help when needed
  • If necessary, ask questions that require short answers or a nod or shake of the head

People Who Are Hearing Impaired:

  • If necessary, get the person’s attention with a tap on the shoulder or a wave of the hand (not arm)
  • When using speech to communicate, always face the person and speak clearly and slowly, without shouting or exaggerating your lip movements
  • Be flexible in your language. If the person experiences difficulty understanding what you are saying, switch the words around and rephrase your statement rather than keep repeating. As a last resort, write messages on paper
  • Keep hands, drinks, and food away from your mouth when talking in order to provide a clear view of your face
  • When an interpreter accompanies a person, direct your remark to the person rather than to the interpreter

People Who Have Cerebral Palsy:

  • If an individual’s speech is difficult to understand, do not be afraid to ask that a statement be repeated

People Who Are Short Statured:

  • Do not pat a person who is short statured on the head
  • If possible, place yourself on the same eye level when speaking with the person who is short statured
  • Do not provide assistance unless asked to do so
  • Do not equate size with intellectual ability

People Who Are Mobility Impaired:

  • When accompanying a person with mobility impairment, walk alongside the person rather than in front
  • Assume people who use artificial legs, canes, and crutches can use the stairs in addition to elevators, unless they inform you otherwise
  • Be aware of distances. Even a two to three block walk could be tiresome to some individuals with mobility impairment
  • Some people depend on their arms for balance. Grabbing them, even if your intention is to assist, could knock them off balance

Common Courtesies When Speaking with an Individual with a Disability 

  • Always identify the athlete or sport first, then the disability
  • Act naturally and don’t monitor your every word and action. Don’t be embarrassed if you use common expressions like “see you later” (to a person who is vision impaired) or “I’d better run along” (to someone who uses a wheelchair)
  • Avoid using emotional wording like tragic, afflicted, victim, or wheelchair bound. Emphasize the ability and not the limitation, e.g. by saying that someone “uses a wheelchair” rather than “confined” or “is wheelchair-bound”
  • Avoid portraying athletes with a disability who achieve moderate or average successes as “extraordinary” or “superhuman”. Overstating the achievements of athletes with a disability inadvertently suggests the original expectations were not high. Give appropriate praise as you would any other athlete
  • When talking to an athlete who uses a wheelchair, and the conversation lasts for more than a few minutes, place yourself at eye level with them
  • When greeting an athlete, if you normally shake hands, then offer the same gesture. The athlete will let you know if a certain action is appropriate or not
  • When talking with an athlete, who is visually impaired, always identify yourself and others in your group
  • Do not assume an athlete with a physical disability also has a hearing disability or that their mental capacity is diminished in any way. Speak in a normal tone and do not use language that is condescending
  • Do not make decisions for them about participating in any activities, always ask.
  • Treat athletes with disabilities just as you would the other team member. Have the same expectations as your other athletes (i.e. punctuality, attendance, etc) unless accommodations have been requested and agreed upon


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