Notes on Disability Etiquette

Excerpted from "Removing Barriers to Health Care," produced by the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University.

People with Mobility Disabilities

  • Any aid or equipment a person may use, such as a wheelchair, guide cane, walker, crutch or assistance animal, is part of that person’s personal space. Do not touch, push, pull or otherwise physically interact with an individual’s body or equipment unless requested to do so. If it is necessary to move a person’s mobility device, never do so without asking first.
  •  Always ask before you move a person in a wheelchair, out of courtesy, but also to prevent disturbing the person’s balance. 
  • If a person transfers from a wheelchair to an examining table, bathtub, toilet, etc., be sure not to move the chair beyond easy reach. If the person uses some other aid, such as crutches or a walker, make sure they remain accessible to the patient.
  • Always make sure the wheelchair is locked before helping a person transfer.
  • When conversing at length with a person in a wheelchair, sit or place yourself at that person’s eye level, but do not kneel.
  • Don’t patronize people who use wheelchairs by patting them on the head.

People with Vision Disabilities

  • When you offer to assist someone with a vision impairment, allow the person to take your arm. This will help you guide rather than propel or lead them.

  • When greeting a person with a severe loss of vision, always identify yourself and others who may be with you. Speak in a normal tone of voice, indicate when you move from one place to another, and advise the person when the conversation is at an end.

People with Hearing Disabilities

  • To get the attention of a person who has a hearing disability, tap the person on the shoulder or wave your hand. 
  • Look directly at the person and speak clearly, slowly and expressively to establish if the person can read your lips. Not all persons with hearing impairments can lip read. Those who can rely on facial expressions and other body language to help in understanding. Show consideration by placing yourself facing the light source and keeping your hands and food away from your mouth when speaking. Keep mustaches well-trimmed.
  • While shouting won’t help, written notes can.

People with Cognitive Disabilities

  • Take the time necessary to assure clear understanding. Use simpler words and add gestures while you talk. Use precise language and try to employ words that relate to things you both can see. You may need to write down information or draw a simple picture.
  • Be prepared to give the person the same information more than once in different ways.

People with Speech Disabilities

  • Allow enough time to accommodate communication. Give whole, unhurried attention when you’re talking to a person who has difficulty speaking. Keep your manner encouraging rather than correcting, be patient rather than speak for the person. When necessary, ask short questions that require short answers or a nod or shake of the head. 
  • Never pretend to understand if you are having difficulty doing so. Repeat what you understand. The person’s reaction will assist you and guide you to understanding. Or try paper and pen.