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Disability Etiquette

How should I relate to a person living with disability?

Many people treat a person living with disability differently but they are just like you and me, wanting to be treated equally.

Here are some basic etiquette tips when talking or working with a person living with disability. 

  • Always talk about the person before their disability (this is a person-centred approach).
  • Avoid asking personal questions about someone's disability.
  • Let the person decide what they wish to share with you, if at all. Their story is very personal and not everyone is comfortable sharing.


See Community Inclusion and our resources section for more information about a person-centred approach.

Offering assistance

  • Be patient and considerate of the extra time it might take for a person living with a disability to do something, move or communicate.
  • Don’t just help someone with a disability. Ask first to see if they would like assistance.
  • Be polite when offering assistance and wait until your offer is accepted.
  • Be prepared for your offer of assistance to be refused, as the person may be very independent.
  • Listen or ask for specific instructions.
  • Offer an apology if you feel you’ve caused embarrassment.
  • When planning a meeting or event, think about accessibility and specific needs a person with a disability might need. If a barrier cannot be avoided, let the person know ahead of time.
  • Do not finish someone's sentences or words.  If they have difficulty, let them finish.


Speaking or writing about disability

  • Refer to the individual first, then to their disability (i.e. “person with disability," rather than "disabled person").
  • Refer to a person's disability only when necessary and appropriate.
  • Avoid the following words because they can have negative meanings: invalid, able-bodied, wheelchair-bound, victim, stupid, dumb, crippled, defect, suffers from, handicap, a patient.
  • Avoid terms that imply that people with disabilities are overly courageous, brave, special or superhuman.
  • Do not say derogatory comments about a person with a disability.


Face to face communication

  • Use a normal tone of voice when welcoming a person with disability. 
  • Do not raise your voice or speak louder unless you are asked to.
  • Shake hands even if the person has limited hand use or wears an artificial limb. If the person cannot shake hands, acknowledge them with a smile and a spoken greeting.
  • Don’t stare if you have a question or want to talk to the person. Go up to the person and talk to them. They are just like you but have an injury or impairment.
  • Look and talk directly to the person. Do not talk as if they are not there.
  • Don't patronise or talk down to a person living with disability.
  • Be patient and attentive, especially with someone who speaks slowly, has a speech impairment or speaks with great effort.
  • If requested by the individual, offer a person with a vision impairment your elbow, to guide rather than propel them. Speak to them about what is happening as you guide them. e.g. We are about to reach three steps to go down.
  • It is okay to use common expressions like "see you soon" or "I'd better be running along".
  • Don’t assume that a person cannot or does not want to be involved simply because they have a disability. Adjustments can almost always be made so that everyone can be included.
  • Do not lean on or touch a person’s wheelchair without their permission, as the wheelchair is a part of the person and it may be seen as an invasion of personal space.
  • Always ask the person if they would like help. Don’t assume they can’t do something.
  • Be mindful of the time it may take a person with a disability to do everyday tasks.
  • Do not say make jokes about a person’s wheelchair unless you know the person.
  • People live very independent lives. Do not assume that living with a disability is a tragedy.  


People with vision impairment

  • When greeting a person with a vision impairment, always identify yourself and others who may be with you e.g. “Hi my name is David Smyth and on my right is Catherine Blogs.”
  • When conversing in a group, provide a vocal cue by announcing the name of the person to whom you are speaking e.g. “Catherine, what do you think about the process.”
  • Speak in a normal tone of voice, indicate in advance when you will be moving from one place to another and let it be known when the conversation is at an end.
  • Offer a person with visual impairment the opportunity to take your arm or elbow, this enables you to guide them rather than propel or lead them. Do not get offended if they say no, they may be independent.


People with a hearing impairment

  • When communicating with a person living with a hearing impairment, look directly at the person and speak clearly, naturally and slowly.
  • Not all people with a hearing impairment can lip read. People who can lip read will rely on facial expression and other body language to help in understanding.
  • Not all people with a hearing impairment use sign language. They may lip read or use a hearing aid.
  • Do not shout at a person with a hearing impairment. Shouting distorts sounds accepted through hearing aids and inhibits lip reading.
  • Show consideration by placing yourself facing the light source and keeping your hands, cigarettes, food and drink away from your mouth when speaking.
  • Written notes may aid conversations with a person with a hearing impairment.
  • To facilitate conversation, be prepared to offer a visual cue to a person with a hearing impairment.


People who use mobility aids

  • Offer a person who uses mobility aids, such as walkers or crutches, a seat if you are going to be speaking to them for more than a minute.
  • When addressing a person who uses a wheelchair, don’t lean on the chair, rock or move their chair. The wheelchair is part of their personal body space.
  • When talking with a person in a wheelchair for more than a few minutes, use a chair, whenever possible, in order to place yourself at the person's eye level to facilitate conversation.
  • If a person has transferred out of their wheelchair, do not move the chair out of reach.
  • Never patronise people using wheelchairs by patting them on the head or shoulder.


People with speech impairment

  • Listen attentively when you're talking to a person who has a speech impairment.
  • Keep your manner encouraging rather than correcting.
  • Never pretend to understand what a person is saying if you don’t.  Repeat what you understand, or incorporate the statements into each of your following questions. The person's reactions will clue you in and guide you to understanding.
  • If you have difficulty communicating, try repeating or rephrasing a question.
  • When necessary, ask short questions that require short answers or a nod or shake of the head.
  • Try offering the person a pen and paper.
  • Exercise patience rather than attempting to speak for a person with speech difficulty.