Disability Etiquette

Social interaction is a cornerstone of the modern college experience. Postsecondary students encounter a variety of different people while they are in school, and while a courteous, respectful manner is encouraged in all social circles, this article specifically explores etiquette guidelines for interacting with students with disabilities.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.” The ADA also notes that the term usually refers to people who currently live with a disability, but the status may also apply to those with a history of impairment who are not currently living with a disability, as well as individuals who are incorrectly perceived as disabled. General categories of disability include deafness or hearing loss, blindness or vision impairment, wheelchair use or limited mobility, cognitive (intellectual) limitations, speech disabilities, and hidden disabilities. Roughly 49 million Americans (or one in five) are living with a disability, and according to data from the National Center of Education Statistics (NCES), around 11% of college students identify as disabled.

Regardless of their specific status, every student with a disability is entitled to the same level of inclusion, course participation, and respect as their peers.

Today’s academic experts stress the importance of practicing and promoting disability etiquette within all education settings, and of providing all necessary classroom accommodations for students with disabilities. Let’s begin with a few general guidelines for engaging and interacting with people with disabilities in a courteous, thoughtful manner.

When in doubt, contact DRD and speak with a Disability Specialist.


When introduced to someone with a disability, a non-disabled individual may react to this person’s appearance or affected speech. These reactions are usually somewhat reflexive, but for the sake of inclusion it is important to refrain from looks, gestures, or statements that will make the individual feel uncomfortable.

  • Always be patient and considerate of individuals whose disabilities require them to move or speak at a relatively slow rate.
  • Make full eye contact when talking with someone who is physically disabled and avoid prolonged staring.
  • When meeting someone who is deaf or appears to have a cognitive or speech disability, be sure to address this person clearly and maintain a normal tone of voice.
  • Always be mindful of doors, stairs, and other everyday features that may impede someone who uses a wheelchair or has other physical limitations. Offer assistance if a person with disabilities appears to be struggling, but also be respectful if he or she prefers to be independent and declines the offer.


Disability advocates emphasize the importance of respectful terminology. Proper etiquette states that referring to someone as a “person with a disability” is more preferable than calling them a “disabled person.” This can also be applied to specific disabilities; for instance, “person who is blind” is more respectful than “blind person.”  Putting the “person first” identifies them as a fellow human, rather than someone defined by a disability. Also, beware of terms like “person who suffers from blindness,” “accident victim,” and other labels that depict someone as weak and helpless.

The disability section of the University of Northern Iowa’s Office of Compliance and Equity Management also notes that people should avoid apologizing for using “gotta run,” “see you later,” or other expressions that inadvertently relate to certain disabilities. “These expressions are part of everyday language,” the author notes, “and it is likely the apology will be more offensive than the expression.”

Wheelchair Users & Mobility Device Users

In an article for Challenge Magazine, Ric Garren highlights the importance of interacting with wheelchair and mobility device users without drawing undue attention to their disability. Offer a friendly handshake at the outset of your interaction and speak to the person directly. If possible, take a seat near someone in a wheelchair in order to match their eye level. Do not assume that these people need assistance; many of them are perfectly adept at moving around on their own. The United Spinal Association also warns to never touch someone’s wheelchair unless invited to do so because the chair is part of that individual’s personal space.

Deafness & Hearing Loss

Deafness and Hearing loss can look different than what you may expect. For people who lose their hearing later in life, they may prefer communication by voice with the help of hearing aids and other assistive listening devices. For many people who were born deaf, American Sign Language (ASL) is the first language they learn, followed by English. Meaning they may be most comfortable communicating using their hands; and therefore, they may not feel as comfortable in English. Lip reading is often not an effective approach to communication with a deaf or hard-of-hearing person. Anyone who is unsure about how to best communicate with a deaf or hard of hearing individual should begin by asking them about their personal preferences.

Blindness & Visual Impairment

Many people will limit their use of descriptive language when conversing with a blind or visually impaired person. However, the American Foundation for the Blind notes that vision-related words like “see” and “look” are part of the common vernacular, and should be used freely without worrying that a person who is blind or visually impaired will take offense. “Making reference to colors, patterns, designs, and shapes” is also encouraged. If an individual uses a seeing-eye dog in order to get around, never pet, feed, or otherwise interact with the animal without the owner’s consent.

The AFB also discusses how you can be a “sighted guide” for people with limited vision. If someone who is blind or visually impaired requests assistance, their companion should offer them an elbow by brushing their hand against the individual’s hand. Keep a reasonable pace while walking, and feel free to alert your companion about doors, escalators, steep inclines, and other features of the path ahead that may pose danger. Never break physical contact with someone who has asked for a sighted guide until reaching your final destination.

Speech Disabilities

A common misconception about people with speech disabilities is that they must also have a cognitive disability. However, many people with affected speech do not have any sort of intellectual limitation and are able to understand normal conversations. When they speak, refrain from correcting their language or grammar and avoid “interpreting” them for others. Exercise patience when listening and always be clear if anything the person says is not fully understood. If possible, rephrase questions in order to allow them to give one-word answers.

Cognitive Disabilities

Cognitive disabilities range from highly impactful to barely noticeable in everyday life. Like other disabilities, the key to effective interaction is establishing parameters for communication. Some people with cognitive disabilities struggle in loud or crowded areas, and may prefer quieter spots. Others have mobility limitations (which may or may not be related to their cognitive disability) and enjoy activities with minimal physical activity. Speak directly to these people and make eye contact at all times to ensure that they understand what is being said. Offer help with tasks that may be difficult for them, but do not assume they want or need help.

Hidden Disabilities

Some individuals have disabilities that are not readily apparent at first glance. Hidden disabilities may refer to chronic medical conditions, diseases, or vision or hearing impairments that do not require a device. Some mental health issues, such as autism and attention deficit disorder, also fall under this umbrella. It helps to follow a simple guideline regarding all hidden disabilities: be cautious when interpreting unusual gestures and tics, as these actions might be the only symptoms of an individual’s disability. For example, diabetes and other chronic illnesses can cause people to slur their speech and stumble when they walk, giving them an intoxicated appearance. Avoid questions like “what’s wrong?” or “are you OK?” until you know more about their disability.


Source: https://www.bestcolleges.com/resources/disability-etiquette/