Disability Etiquette Questions and Answers

1. You’re being introduced to a person with an artificial limb.  Should you reach out to shake his hand?

Many people with artificial limbs or motor-skills disabilities of the shoulder, arm, or hand prefer to offer a greeting other than a handshake.  Let him set the agenda.  If he does extend his hand, shake it!  Never pat a person with a disability on the shoulder, face or head, which is a gesture more appropriate to greeting a child.


2. You just said, “See you later!” to a girl with a visual impairment.  Should you apologize?

“I’ve got to be running along…” “I’ll be seeing you…” “You won’t believe what I just heard…” – these are all natural figures of speech.  Listen closely and you’ll often hear people with disabilities relying on them too.  Use them without embarrassment.


3. What do you do if you’re especially curious about a disability assistance device like a power wheelchair?  Do you ask?

Some disability assistance devices like modern electronically controlled power wheelchairs are intriguingly sophisticated, but you should remember most people who use such devices consider them no more unique than a pair of prescription sunglasses.  If you feel you must ask—if you have a valid reason for asking – you should be direct but casual and prepared for the fact you may be crossing the boundaries of good manners.


4. A person with Down Syndrome asks you about your program.  What should you do?

Respond to questions asked by a person with a disability with the same information you’d provide a person without a disability.  Avoid making assumptions about what a person needs to know based on what you think they might or might not be able to do.  When speaking with someone with a developmental disability, use simple but not childish language.


5. A woman who is deaf comes into your office with a sign language interpreter.  Who should you look at when you’re talking?

When talking with a person who has a disability, speak directly to that person rather than a companion or interpreter.


6. You see a man with no obvious disability using a handicap parking space.  Should you leave a note on his car?

Handicap parking spaces are reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities, but not all disabilities are visible.  Consider severe heart or lung function problems as an example.  Both limit a person’s mobility.  Assume anyone driving a properly tagged car has the right to use an accessible parking space.


7. You meet someone with an obvious disability who is a person of some accomplishment.  How do you express your admiration?

Many people with disabilities cringe at the words “overcome” and “hero.”  To credit accomplishment to those values in some measure denigrates the hard work and talent that made possible the achievement.  Ignore the disability—praise the accomplishment.


8. A man comes into the office with a dog wearing a service animal tag but the man does not appear to have a sight impairment.  Should you tell him pets aren’t allowed in the building?

While guide dogs are the traditional service animal, you may meet someone being assisted by a dog – or another animal – for other reasons.  If the animal is wearing a service animal tag, you should assume it has the right to proceed unhindered in any social or professional setting.  Remember the animal is not a pet.  Allow it to do its work.


9. You observe a man using a wheelchair at the curb, in obvious need of assistance.  How do you help?

Ask politely before doing anything to help anyone.  If you offer to help, wait until the offer is accepted, then listen or ask for instructions.  Never grab a hold of a wheelchair without permission.  While wheelchairs are generally sturdy, many need to be handled in a specific fashion to avoid damage.


10. You offer to help a woman with a disability and she responds by yelling a rude remark at you.  What do you do?

Disability does not confer sainthood.  People with disabilities are people, subject to all the human idiosyncrasies and faux pas you see around you every day.  If you’re met with rudeness, blame it on the person rather than the disability.