Terminology & Etiquette

Accessibility keyboard buttonWhen referring to a person’s disability, although not normally necessary, acceptable terminology for the specific disability or using the term preferred by the individual should be chosen. Most importantly, use “person first” language. By this, we mean that it’s important to use positive language that highlights the abilities of the individual as opposed to focusing on the limits of the disability and making incorrect group generalizations. A disability does not define a person and it is wrong to diminish a person’s identity to their disability. If it’s necessary to communicate to someone that “Todd” has autism, don’t refer to him as “Todd the autistic guy”; instead, say “Todd is a guy who has autism”.

Group designations such as “the blind” or “the disabled” are inappropriate because they do not reflect the individuality, equality or dignity of people with disabilities. Further, words like “normal person” imply that the person with a disability isn’t normal. Also, keep in mind that using negative phrases such as “victim”, “afflicted by” and “suffers from” are patronizing and demeaning. Finally, do not refer to people with disabilities as “heroes” or “courageous”. They are living their lives just the same as everyone else, dealing with situations, attitudes and barriers. 

Below you will find general tips and information regarding specific disabilities about communicating and working with individuals with disabilities.

General Tips

  • When introduced to a person with a disability, it is appropriate to offer to shake hands. People with limited use of their hand or who wear an artificial limb can usually shake hands.
  • If you offer assistance, wait until the offer is accepted. Then listen to or ask for instructions before proceeding.
  • Talk directly to the person. Don’t talk to them through another person or as if they are not there. If an interpreter or communication assistant is being used, speak directly to the person you are having the conversation with. 
  • Relax. Don’t be embarrassed if you happen to use a common expression such as “See you around” or “Got to run” that relate to the person’s disability.
  • If in doubt, ask! Don’t be afraid if you’re unsure of what to do in a situation. An individual with a disability is the expert on their personal situation, and would appreciate someone taking the time to ask how they can help rather than assuming or ignoring.

Physical and Mobility Disabilities

  • Keep in mind that a wheelchair is an extension of a person’s physical space. Do not lean on, touch, or move a person’s wheelchair without permission.
  • Do not assume a person in a wheelchair wants to be pushed. Ask first.
  • If possible, put yourself at the wheelchair user’s eye level. If the conversation is going to be lengthy, pull up a chair.
  • Be sensitive regarding physical contact. Some people with disabilities depend on their arms for balance, and grabbing them – even if your intention is to assist – could knock them off balance.
  • •    If you phone a person with known mobility impairments, allow the phone to ring longer than usual to allow them to reach the phone.

Visual Disabilities

  • Speak to the individual when you approach, stating clearly who you are and speaking in a normal tone of voice.
  • When talking in a group, remember to identify yourself and the person to whom you are speaking.
  • Never pet or distract a service dog without first asking the own – remember that the dog is working.
  • Do not attempt to lead the individual without asking first. Allow the person to hold your arm and control their own movements.
  • Be visually descriptive when giving directions and entering a strange room. Identify things like dimensions, steps, and potential barriers. It is helpful to use the hands on a clock to describe directions.

Hearing Loss

  •  Make sure that you have the person’s attention before speaking. Look directly at the person you’re talking to, and don’t turn your head away in the middle of a sentence. 
  • Avoid covering your mouth with your hands or chewing gum as this may make it more difficult to lip read.
  • Do not shout. If the person can hear on their own by using a hearing device, shouting will only distort what you are saying and make it harder to understand you.
  • If using an interpreter, speak directly to the person you’re talking to, not the interpreter, and do not tell the interpreter what to say (i.e. “Ask Tom how he is doing”).
  • When in doubt, ask how to improve communication.

Speech Impairments

  •  If you do not understand something the individual says, do not pretend that you do. Ask them to repeat what they said and then repeat it back to them.
  •  Be patient. Take as much time as necessary.
  • Concentrate on what the individual is saying, and do not speak for them or try to finish their sentences.
  • If you are having difficulty understanding the individual, consider writing as an alternate means of communication, but first ask them if this is acceptable.

Intellectual Disabilities or Autism Spectrum Disorders

  • People with autism experience varying degrees of difficulty in understanding and interpreting other people’s verbal (including irony and subtle humour) and non-verbal behaviour, as well as others’ motivations and expectations. 
  • They can find social interaction confusing and difficult, and may display unusual behaviours such as difficulty making eye contact or fidgeting. However, do not be offended or assume they are not paying attention to you.
  • Be aware of over-stimulating environments that may distract the individual. Consider moving the person’s work station to a more comfortable location that better fits their needs and hold meetings in quiet rooms that are not overly bright.
  • Invite them to share effective coping strategies that they have developed for social situations. For instance, a person who doesn’t read social cues well may talk for too long and may have developed a non-verbal signal for them to finish speaking with their friends or parents.
  • Avoid jokes, exaggerated language, metaphors, and abstract or ambiguous statements. 
  • Keep sentences short, using more direct and specific language. Be clear and concise. 
  • Ask closed rather than open questions. 
  • Repeat requests clearly and in writing if necessary.

Mental Health Disabilities

  • People with mental health disabilities may not show any signs at all; others may have acute mood swings, difficulty concentrating or remembering. There are such a wide range of behaviors – do not assume that those with mental health disorders need extra assistance or differential treatment.
  • Often the most significant barriers faced by people with mental health conditions are the attitudes and assumptions of others. Treat a person with a mental health disability with the same respect and consideration you have for everyone else. Be patient and non-judgmental.
  • If someone appears to be in a crisis or is displaying distressed behaviour, ask them (preferably in private) to tell you the best way to help.
  • Remain flexible and attentive to the person, not the disability.


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