Oftentimes it is hard to know how to react or respond to someone who appears to be different in their abilities, physical appearance or style of communication. Here are some recommendations:

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Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can really hurt me. The language we use states a lot about our thoughts and attitudes. The wrong words can hurt and exclude people. The right words show care and respect. This includes the way we talk to people with disabilities.

Over the years people with disabilities have agreed on a language etiquette that is accurate and considerate. This does not mean that this language is fixed; usage changes. What it does mean is that this is the language people with disabilities prefer now. We don’t refer to our friends by names other than those of their own choosing. By using the following guidelines, we are simply giving people with disabilities the same basic courtesy by referring to them in terms of their choice.

People first

  • Say, “person with a disability,” “student who is Deaf,” or “chemist who has polio.” This puts the focus on the individual rather than on a particular functional limitation.
  • Avoid identifying a group of people as a disability.
  • Say “scientists who are blind,” or “people with disabilities,” instead of “the blind” or “the disabled.”
  • Describe mobility aids or other technology as useful devices to the individual rather than extensions of themselves.
  • Say “uses a wheelchair,” or “walks with crutches,” rather than “wheelchair bound” or “confined to crutches,” No one is actually bound to a wheelchair – they just use it to get around. After all, we wouldn’t describe someone who uses planes to travel long distances as “plane bound.
  • Avoid emotional or degrading terms.
  • Never use “afflicted with,” “victim of,” “unfortunate,” “pitiful,” “cripple,” “spastic,” “retarded,” or “deformed.”

Remember to distinguish between…

  • …”disabilities” and “handicaps:” A “disability” applies to a person. A “handicap” describes a barrier in the environment. A disability is a functional limitation: paraplegia, blindness, and cerebral palsy are all disabilities. A disability becomes a handicap only when an external barrier prevents a person from doing something. For example, a person uses a wheelchair because of a disability; there is a handicap only when that person faces stairs with no adjoining elevators, and cannot go up or down a floor.
  • .. .”non-disabled” and “normal:” Most people, including people with disabilities, think of themselves as normal. When referring to the fact that someone is not disabled, use “non-disabled.”

Common Courtesy

People with disabilities are entitled to the same courtesies you extend to anyone. Rather than make assumptions about their lives and abilities, find out about them. Ask questions about the kinds of things that you would ask anyone you would like to know. Share information about your own life as well. But, be courteous: if you don’t generally ask people about their incomes or personal lives, don’t ask people with disabilities about theirs. Don’t’ call a person by his or her first name unless you are doing the same with everyone present.

Consider the following suggestions:

  • Always talk to a person with a disability directly, even if an interpreter or attendant is present.
  • Ask before you help. If someone accepts your offer, be sure to ask for any directions he or she may give you.
  • Relax. Don’t be embarrassed to use conventional expressions that may seem to relate to a person’s disability, such as “I see what you mean,” or “have to run along.”
  • Don’t make assumptions. Whether it is performing a lab experiment, filing, or pouring coffee, if you are not sure a person can or cannot do a task, simply ask.
  • Since you don’t usually lean on people, don’t lean on wheelchairs. It can be uncomfortable.
  • Don’t pat a wheelchair user on the shoulder. What is intended as a friendly gesture often appears condescending.
  • When introduced to a person with a disability in a professional or social setting, shake hands.
  • If you’re not sure what to do, take your cue from the person with a disability whether or not to shake hands.
  • When talking with a person in a wheelchair for more than a few minutes, place yourself at the wheelchair user’s eye level. This will spare both of you a stiff neck.
  • When talking to a person who is hard of hearing, look directly at the person and speak clearly.
  • Place yourself facing a light source, and keep hands or food away from your mouth when speaking. Not all persons who are Deaf or hard of hearing can lip read. Shouting won’t help, but rewording what you are trying to say or written notes can.
  • When offering to assist someone with a visual related disability (low vision, legally blind, or blind) explain to them that you can offer the person assistance by extending your arm. This will help you to guide, rather than propel or lead this person.
  • When greeting someone with a visual disability, always identify yourself and others who are with you. Speak in a normal tone of voice, indicate when you are moving from one place to another, and let it be known when you are excusing yourself. In conversation with a person whose speech is difficult to understand, give your whole, unhurried attention. Be patient rather than speak for the person. When necessary, ask short questions that require short answers. Don’t pretend to understand something that you have not understood. Repeat what you do understand. To gain the attention of someone who is Deaf or hard of hearing, gently wave your hand in his or her line of vision or lightly tap him or her on the shoulder.


A person with a disability is an individual with the same range of hopes, fears, assets, and faults as a non-disabled person. A person with a disability should be treated no differently. Yet sometimes, despite our best intentions, this simple fact is forgotten. Old myths and stereotypes come back. Here are a few examples:

  • “You’re invisible:” We avoid or ignore a student or colleague whose disability makes us feel uncomfortable.
  • “You’re helpless:” We are usually solicitous and deferential, and sometimes volunteer help without asking if it is needed.
  • “You’re sick:” We assume a person’s disability has a disease. We assume the disability is progressive debilitating, and the cause of other physical or intellectual deficits.
  • People who use wheelchairs, for example, are often spoken to in a childlike manner or in a loud voice, as if they were not adults and are not able to hear.
  • “You’re incredible:” We assume people with disabilities, especially those who have made it to college, graduate school, or employment, are courageous and exceptional. As flattering as it may be, this belief too is a myth.
  • Saying, “you’re incredible,” prevents both you and the student or colleague from being realistic. Scientists and engineers with disabilities are no more or less incredible than other people who have succeeded in these demanding fields. They are doing what is expected of people in our culture and simply want to be treated equally like everyone else.
  • “You’re trying hard enough:” We expect less of people with disabilities. We praise a student or colleague with a disability who is merely passing or fulfilling duties, for example, instead of advising him/her that s/he could be doing much better with a little more work.

Strategies to overcome stereotyping

  • Treat a person with a disability as you would anyone else.
  • Always talk to a person directly, even if s/he has an attendant, companion, or interpreter.
  • Ask before you help. Don’t assume anything about a disability.
  • Don’t lower your standards or expectations.
  • Don’t compliment a person with a disability for doing something you would expect a non-disabled person to do.
  • Understand how accessibility and technology are important to a person’s functioning.