General Considerations For Interacting With People With Disabilities

The biggest barriers that people with disabilities face, and the hardest barriers to remove, are other people’s negative attitudes and erroneous images of them.  Some common pitfall reactions to people with disabilities are:

  • All that matters is your label.  Individuals adopt a label, usually based upon a person’s disability.  There is little regard for the individuality of the person, i.e., the blind have all the same needs; all quadriplegics have the same interests and abilities; or people with any kind of physical impairment are “the handicapped,”  “the crippled” and all become “cases.”
  • I feel sorry for you.  In this syndrome of pity, focus is inordinately on the negative aspects of the person’s life: a life filled with pain, suffering, difficulty, frustration, fear, and rejection.  Although you may be aware of these negative feelings and try not to show them, they often emerge through the tone of voice or the expression on your face.
  • Don’t worry, I’ll save you.  Characteristics of this pitfall are expressions such as the following: “I’ll do it for you,” “Give the person a break,” Don’t worry about it, I’ll take care of it,” and “It’s too difficult for you.”
  • I know what’s best for you.  This syndrome is characterized by such expressions as: “You shouldn’t…” “You’ll never…” or “You can’t….”
  • Who’s more anxious, you or me?  Characteristic comments about the person are typically communicated to colleagues, family members, and friends.  These include “Makes me feel uncomfortable,” "It’s so frustrating,” or "I can’t deal with….”

People with disabilities are just people who may happen to have more difficulty than others walking, moving, talking, learning, breathing, seeing, hearing, etc.  They are remarkably like everybody else.  They pass, they fail, they succeed, they go bankrupt, they take trips, they stay at home, they are bright people, they are good people, they are pains in the neck, they are trying to get by.  To free yourself from the limitations of the reactions above, keep in mind these general suggestions:


Be generous with yourself.  Admit that the uneasiness you feel is your problem, not the person’s, and realize that it will pass with time and exposure.


Do not be afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing.  By avoiding communication or contact with a person with a disability, fears and misconceptions cannot be curbed.  Discomfort can and will be eased if people with disabilities and people without disabilities see and interact with each other more often at work and social settings.


Talk directly to the person with a disability.  Comments such as “does he want to…” to an attendant or friend accompanying a person with a disability should be avoided.  When a person who is deaf is using a sign language interpreter, look at them and direct all questions and comments to them, not to the interpreter.


Do not apply blanket accommodations.  Needs vary among individuals, even those with the same type of disability.  Therefore, all accommodations are not automatically applicable to all persons with a particular disability.  A disability can vary in terms of the degree of limitation, the length of time the person has been disabled (adjustment to the disability), and the stability of the condition.


Do not discuss a person’s disability or related needs with anyone who does not have a legitimate need to know.  A person’s disability and any functional limitations caused by that disability should be held in the strictest confidence.


Do not feel that people with disabilities are getting unfair advantages.  Accommodations help to “even the field” so that a person may be effective in their work.  People with disabilities do not get by with less work.


Pretending to understand someone’s speech when you do not will hinder communication.  Some people with disabilities may have difficulty in expressing ideas orally.  Wait for the person to finish their thought rather than interrupting or finishing it for them.  If you do not understand what is being said, repeat back what you do not understand and the other person will fill in or correct your understanding where needed.  It is appropriate to ask the person if it may be easier for them to write down the information, however, you must be prepared to accept the answer “no.”


Recognize that a person with a disability may afford you a unique opportunity.  What is not always readily appreciated is the unique input of a person whose life experience may be different from our own.  If we view this situation as a learning experience rather than a problem we can all be enriched by it.


This material was adapted from:

Succeeding Together: People With Disabilities in the Workplace

A Curriculum for Interaction

By Terri Goldstein, M.S., CRC, Michael Winkler, M.S., and Margaret Chun, M.S.


A downloadable version of the Succeeding Together manual can be found at: