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Disability Etiquette

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Disability Etiquette

The rules of etiquette and good manners for dealing with people with disabilities are generally the same as the rules for good etiquette in society. These guidelines address specific issues which frequently arise for people with disabilities in terms of those issues related to disability and outline basic etiquette for working with people with different kinds of disabilities.

These should be regarded as general caveats of appropriate behavior. Since everyone is different, these guidelines only hold true for most individuals most of the time.

  • Assistive devices (canes, wheelchairs, crutches, communication boards, etc.) should be respected as personal property.
  • Always direct communication to the individual with the disability. If they are accompanied, do not direct your comments to the companion.
  • Use the same level of formality with everyone present.
  • Relax. Do not be embarrassed if you happen to use common expressions like “See you later” or “Got to be running along” that seem to relate to the person’s disability.
  • It is appropriate to shake hands when introduced to a person with a disability. People who have limited use of their hand or who wear an artificial limb can usually shake hands. Shaking with the left hand is acceptable. For people who cannot shake hands, touch the person on the shoulder or arm to welcome and acknowledge their presence.
  • Focus on the individual and the issue at hand, not the disability.
  • People with disabilities are interested in the same topics of conversation in which people without disabilities are interested.
  • If someone needs you to speak in a louder voice, they will ask.
  • People with disabilities, like all people, are experts on themselves. They know what they like, what they do not like, and what they can and can not do. If you are uncertain what to do, ask. Most people would rather answer a question about protocol than be in an uncomfortable situation.
  • Offer assistance in a dignified manner with sensitivity and respect. Be prepared to have the offer declined. If the offer is accepted, listen to and accept instructions.
  • When mistakes are made, apologize, correct the problem, learn from the mistake and move on.
  • Let people provide information about their disability on their own initiative. They are not responsible for educating the public by sharing their story.

Cognitive Disabilities Specific Etiquette

  • Treat adults with cognitive disabilities as adults
  • When speaking to someone who has a cognitive disability, try to be alert to their responses so that you can adjust your method of communication if necessary.
  • Use language that is concrete rather than abstract. Be specific; without being too simplistic.
  • People with brain injuries may have short-term memory deficits and may repeat themselves or require information to be repeated.
  • People with auditory perceptual problems may need to have directions repeated, and may take notes to help them remember directions or sequence of task.
  • People with perceptual or “sensory overload” problems may become disorientated or confused if there is too much to absorb at once.  Provide information gradually and clearly.  Reduce background noise if possible.
  • Repeat information using different wording or different communication approach. Allow time for the information to be fully understood.
  • Don’t pretend to understand if you don’t, ask the person to repeat what was said.
  • In conversation, people may respond slowly, so give them time.  Be patient, flexible and supportive.
  • Some people who have a cognitive disability may be easily distracted.  Try not to interpret distraction as rudeness.  Instead, try to redirect politely.
  • Do not expect all people to be able to read well.  Some people may not read at all.

Our Experts

AutisticFusion experts ground their work in our mission and vision to advocate for laws and policies that create lasting change for people living with disabilities.

  • Michele Newmann – Founding Board Member of AutisticFusion – michele@autisticfusion.org 
    • Experience –
    • Expertise –
  • Mikayla Houser – Founder of AutisticFusion and current Board Member – mikayla@autisticfusion.org
    • Experience – Advocacy for Disability Rights (9 years), Nonprofit employment (13 years), Autism specific (18 years)
    • Expertise – Public Policy, Testimony/Autism Specific in legislative sessions and courtroom proceedings, Train the Trainer, television & web.

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