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Disability Etiquette Tips

Although you want to be inclusive and welcoming to people with disabilities, you may not always be sure of the etiquette. Here are some disability etiquette tips to keep in mind.

Guiding principle: Treat everyone with dignity and respect.

Conversational etiquette

  • Speak directly to the person with a disability rather than to a companion or support person.
  • Give unhurried attention to people as they’re speaking, in particular people who communicate differently or have difficulty speaking.
  • Speak calmly, slowly, and directly to a person who is hard of hearing. Don’t shout or speak in the person’s ear.
  • When you will be talking with a person in a wheelchair for more than a few moments, try to position yourself at eye level—as long as you can do so without drawing unnecessary attention to the fact that you are doing so.
  • Avoid words and phrases such as “crippled,” “handicapped,” and “wheelchair-bound.” Sometimes a disability doesn’t even need to be mentioned. When it does, use person-first language. For example, say  “Mary is Deaf (or hard of hearing),” or “Denise uses a wheelchair.” Better yet, have the person share about that aspect of their lives for themselves, if they wish to.
  • Avoid excessive praise when people with disabilities accomplish everyday tasks. This is commonly experienced in the form of inspirational stories, and it can further marginalize people with disabilities.
  • Too often, people assume that people with one disability experience other disabilities as well. This is known as the “spread effect.” For example, someone might speak slowly or loudly to someone who uses a wheelchair, assuming either an additional hearing or intellectual disability.

Physical etiquette

  • To greet someone, you can shake hands, touch hands, touch a person’s prosthesis, or consider bumping fists or elbows. Shaking the left hand can be appropriate, too. 
  • Greet a person who is visually impaired by telling the person your name and where you are. When offering assistance, the person may choose to take your arm as a guide or not. Remember to say out loud when you are approaching inclines, turning, etc.
  • Don’t lean on a person’s wheelchair, which is considered an extension of personal space.
  • Don’t pet a guide or companion dog while it’s working.

Etiquette for offering assistance or support

  • Support the person with a disability in ministering to and leading you and others.
  • Ask before you assist a person who has a disability and listen carefully to their instructions. Do not interfere with a person’s full control over assistive devices.
  • When parents discover that their child has a disability, when injury or illness brings disability into a family’s life, or when another skill is lost due to a progressive disability or injury, grief is a common response. Many people who develop a disability pray first for a cure. God might not cure the person, but will provide healing instead.
    Here’s the difference:
    Cure: the total removal of an illness or disability.
    Heal: growth toward inner integration, well-being, and a sense of meaning, purpose, and value.

Since God goes before us, ask God to equip you with:

  • Reliance on God’s presence.
  • A listening ear. Avoid the temptation to tell your own story or to say, “When I experienced this, I…”
  • An empathic heart.
  • A reluctance to judge.
  • Willingness simply to be present.
  • Openness and transparency.

Final tip

Most importantly, don’t let fear of saying or doing something “wrong” prevent you from getting to know someone with a disability. If you are unsure of what to say when you first meet, try “Hello” or “I’m glad to see you!” You will likely discover that you have more in common than you might anticipate.

Everybody Belongs, Serving Together is a collaboration of RCA and CRCNA Disability Concerns, Christian Horizons, and Elim Christian Services.

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