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Office of Human Resources

Equal Opportunity & Compliance


Disability Etiquette: Did You Know?

Interacting with Students with Disabilities

The first step in interacting with students with disabilities seems obvious: treat them as you would any other student. Students with disabilities come to college for the same reasons others do. They bring with them the same range of backgrounds, intelligence and academic skills. (Top)

Disability vs. Handicap

A disability is a condition caused by an accident, trauma, genetics or disease which may limit a person's mobility, hearing, vision, speech or mental function.

A handicap is a physical or attitudinal constraint that is imposed upon a person, regardless of whether that person has a disability. Webster's Dictionary defines handicap as to put at a disadvantage. (Top)

People with Disabilities

First and foremost, people with disabilities are people - they are not conditions or diseases. For example, a person is not an epileptic but rather a person with epilepsy. Each person is an individual human being - only secondarily do they have one or more disabling conditions.

Avoid making statements such as "the disabled." The word "disabled" as a noun implies separateness or total disability. "The disabled" should not be used to set a group apart from the rest of society. Rather, in any story, article, announcement or advertisement, "people with disabilities" or "individuals with disabilities" should be used. (Top)

Reception Etiquette

When introduced to a person with a disability, it is appropriate to offer a handshake. People with limited hand use or who wear artificial limbs can usually shake hands. Shaking hands with the left hand is also an acceptable greeting. For those who cannot shake hands, touch the person on the shoulder or arm to welcome and acknowledge their presence. (Top)

Mobility Impairments

Treat adults as adults. Never patronize people using wheelchairs by patting them on the head or shoulder. When addressing a person who uses a wheelchair, never lean on the person's wheelchair - the chair is part of the body space of the person who uses it. When talking with a person who has a disability, look at and speak directly to that person, rather than through a companion who may be along. When talking with a person in a wheelchair for more than a few minutes, please sit down in order to place yourself at the person's eye level. (Top)

Deaf and Hearing Impairments

To get the attention of a person with a hearing loss, tap the person on the shoulder or wave your hand.

Look directly at the person and speak clearly and slowly. Speak directly to the person, not the interpreter if interpreter services are provided. Always maintain eye contact with the person with the disability, not the interpreter.

Show consideration by placing yourself facing the light source and keeping your hands away from your mouth when speaking. Keep mustaches well trimmed. Don't chew gum or otherwise block the area around your mouth in such a way as to prohibit lip reading.

Use short sentences and don't exaggerate lip movements. Use a normal tone of voice. Do not raise your voice unless requested.

Do not hesitate to ask the hearing impaired person to repeat if you do not understand him/her. If that doesn't work, then use a pen and paper. (Top)

Visual Impairments

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 in advance when you will be moving from one place to another and let it be known when the conversation is at an end.
Relax. Don't be embarrassed if you happen to use common expressions such as "see you later" or "got to be running along." People with disabilities use these expressions also.
Offer assistance with sensitivity and respect. If the offer to help is declined, do not insist. If the offer is accepted, listen to or ask for instructions (e.g. allow the person with a visual impairment to take your arm at or above the elbow so that you can guide rather than propel the person). (Top)

Persons with Speech Impairments

Listen attentively when talking with a person who has a speech impairment and keep your manner encouraging rather than correcting. When necessary, ask short questions that require short answers. Never pretend to understand if you are having difficulty doing so. Ask the person to repeat themselves, if you cannot understand them. (Top)

Service Animals

Over 12,000 people with disabilities use service animals. Although the most familiar types of service animals are guide dogs used by people who are blind, service animals are assisting persons with other disabilities as well. Many disabling conditions are invisible. Therefore, every person who is accompanied by a service animal may not "look" disabled. A service animal is not required to have any special certification.

According to the ADA, a service animal that has been individually trained to provide assistance or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability can accompany the person in all places of public access.

A service animal is not a pet. Do not touch the service animal, or the person it assists, without permission. Do not make noises at the service animal because it may distract the animal from doing its job. Do not feed the service animal because it may disrupt his/her schedule. (Top)

General Concerns

Be careful not to patronize any person with a disability. Avoid making sympathetic comments such as "Oh isn't it terrible she can't see anything?"

Emphasize the uniqueness and worth of all persons rather than the differences between people. Avoid referring to a person with a disability as "one of them" rather than "one of us."

Do not exclude persons with disabilities from participating in any group, work-related, academic or social event because you think it may be too difficult for them to participate.

When you are expecting new persons with disabilities to visit your campus, know where accessible restrooms, drinking fountains and telephones are located. If such facilities are not available, be ready to offer alternatives. (Top)

A Final Word

"Live and learn." Most of us have heard that phrase. We all make mistakes. It's a fact of life that nobody is perfect. The beauty of making mistakes is that we can learn from them. We can always improve how we interact with others. We hope this information will help you develop comfortable interactions with persons with disabilities. Our ultimate goal is ensure that faculty, staff, students and visitors with disabilities are included in the mainstream of University life. (Top)