South Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation Department

Helping people with disabilities to become and stay employed.
Helping businesses find and keep talent.

Employing Ability

Disability Etiquette

Worried about being “politically correct” in your communication? Worried you may say or do something to offend someone?

Worry no more. Here are some helpful guidelines:

Words are Important

Positive language empowers.

When writing or speaking about people with disabilities, it is important to put the person first. Emphasize abilities, not limitations.

Here are examples of positive and negative phrases:

Positive Negative
Person who is blind The blind
Person with a disability The disabled, handicapped
Person who is hearing impaired Suffers a hearing loss
Person who has multiple sclerosis Afflicted by MS
Person with cerebral palsy CP victim
Person who has muscular dystrophy Stricken by MD
Person with a developmental disability Retarded, mentally defective
Person with epilepsy Epileptic
Person with mental illness Crazy, mental case
Person who uses a wheelchair Confined or restricted to a wheelchair
Person without disabilities Normal person (implies that person with a disability isn’t normal)
Physically disabled Crippled, lame, deformed
Unable to speak; uses synthetic speech Dumb, mute

Communicating with People who have Disabilities

Learn to communicate with people who have disabilities.

People with disabilities expect equal treatment, not special treatment.

Always remember that a person with a disability is a person with feelings. Treat him/her as you would want to be treated.

You can’t always see a person’s disability. If a person acts unusual or seems different, just be yourself. Use common sense.

Avoid asking personal questions about someone’s disability.

Do not raise your voice unless requested.

It is appropriate to extend your hand when introduced to a person with a disability, even if they have an artificial limb. It is acceptable to shake left hands if needed. If they cannot shake hands, a touch on the shoulder or arm is ok.

Be willing to open the door if needed.

Never lean on a person’s wheelchair; this is their personal space.

Look and speak directly to the person with a disability, not to their companion or interpreter.

Ask a person with a visual impairment if he/she would like to take your arm rather than grabbing their arm. Walk slightly ahead, and point out doors, stairs, etc as you approach them. Be specific when describing the location.

Don’t pet or distract a guide dog; they are always working.

Be willing to repeat or rephrase a question if they don’t understand. Ask open-ended questions. Be patient and give your undivided attention.

It’s ok to use expressions like “see you soon” or “I’d better be running along”, etc.