Discrimination and insensitivity often occur when interacting with persons with disabilities. Even if not meant intentionally, this can be very disrespectful and hurtful. Please also check the chapter on inclusive language for more remarks.
Here are some tips for disability etiquette:
Rule 1: Respect boundaries
- Many individuals, with and without disabilities, do not like to be touched by strangers (or even relatives or friends). Historically, many persons with disabilities have had controls placed on their bodies so bodily and mental integrity is very important. Sometimes it may also be culturally unacceptable to touch the person you are interacting with. In any person, you can provoke a feeling of great discomfort by overstepping this line.
- Do not touch or move assistive technology like a wheelchair or a cane without the permission of the person first. In some situations, it may be tempting to take the initiative and make decisions, trying to be quick and pragmatic. But this is a lack of respect. When you are guiding a person, make sure not to pull the person or the cane. Ask the person you are guiding, what you can do to support individual needs (e.g. navigating on a stairway, opening a door etc.)
- If you have the feeling that a person might need assistance, introduce yourself first and ask, if you can be of any help. Don’t take matters into your own hands.
- In a real emergency in the public sphere, things can be a bit hectic. If possible, always ask a person with a disability what you can do to help or if it is okay to guide that person. Carrying a person with a disability diminishes the dignity of the person, so suitable aids and appliances should always be organised or provided. In the work environment, creating a specific buddy system is advised.
- Avoid making casual remarks that are personal or intrusive, and do not ask inappropriate questions about health status, diagnosis, or personal questions. For example, do not say: ‘What happened to you – why can’t you walk properly?’.
- Also, keep in mind: Not all disabilities are visible. If a person introduces herself as a person with a disability, just respect that without questioning ‘why you can’t see it’.
- Don’t single out a person with a disability. No need to mention a specific person by saying “We also have Jim among us, who is blind. Make sure to describe the pictures”. Simply remind participants of inclusive language and behaviour without pinpointing to one person. Honestly, all of us benefit from clear and easy communication and description of visual content.
Rule 2: Don’t patronise people
- Persons with disabilities are very different in terms of their assistance requirements and preferences. Many persons with a disability live very independently and do not need help, others may require assistance. Don’t assume a person wants assistance but equally be ready to offer support.
- Always speak directly to a person with disability and not their personal assistant, companion or interpreter.
- Don’t assume just because a person has a specific disability, it affects all other areas. A wheelchair user doesn’t necessarily have any difficulties with speaking, seeing or learning. A person with a psychosocial disability is not having an ‘episode’ all the time. Don’t make false assumptions.
- Don’t be patronising, use a childish voice or exaggerate, especially in interaction with persons with intellectual disabilities.
- Don’t ignore or bypass input from persons with speech impairments because you might be afraid it will take too long or you might not understand everything. Even if there is not the opportunity to engage in full conversations naturally, do acknowledge and validate by a nod, making eye contact, smiling, etc.
- Respect the time needs people have. Even when your meeting is running late, don’t skip or shorten the breaks because people need sensory breaks, appropriate time to eat and go to the restroom or a break from focusing on the interpretation.
- Acknowledge the contribution of a person with a disability without patronising them. If you didn’t clap after any other statement, don’t do it when a person with a disability gives a statement except, it is really because of the content. Don’t do it because this person contributed ‘despite’ his or her disability.
Rule 3: Use clear and precise communication
- Position yourself at eye level when speaking with a person who is a wheelchair user, or of short stature. This prevents a person from straining their neck or being talked down to.
- Identify yourself first if you wish to speak to someone with vision impairment and remember to inform the person if you are moving away. Don’t leave things on the floor which could create a trip hazard. Ensure, when in public spaces, conferences etc. that wheelchair users, persons with low vision or visual impairments do not face additional mobility barriers.
- Offer orientation of space and describe any non-auditory communication such as videos, images or communication like nodding the head. When giving directions be specific like “1m to your right” instead of “over there to your right”.
- Approach persons who are deaf and hard of hearing from the side or in front so as not to startle them. Ask what their preferred communication is, for example Sign Language or lip reading. When communicating with a person who is deaf maintain eye contact and speak clearly. Don’t hold anything in front of your lips or use over-exaggerated expressions. If using a Sign Language interpreter allow time for interpretation. Remember in some cultures being waved at or touched to gain attention can be seen as rude. Covid-19 notice: The deaf community requests the removal of face masks when speaking, and this has become an accepted practice to improve accessibility. Wearing a shield may be a better alternative.
- Don’t be shy to ask a person who has speech difficulty to repeat themselves, they will be used to this and will appreciate that you value their contributions and ideas. Don’t interrupt and finish sentences for them because you assumed getting their ideas.
- Speak clearly and in short sentences when communicating with a person with intellectual disabilities. Do not be afraid to repeat or rephrase things to help give clarity and provide easy-read materials with clear visuals.
Finally, if you are worried about how to behave, ask politely. Persons with disabilities will prefer honesty and genuine respect for their dignity, preferences and individuality.
- United Nations (2022): Disability-Inclusive Communications Guidelines.