The Fundamentals of Disability Etiquette

Here at Canine Partners we believe it is important that everyone is able to communicate appropriately and effectively with anyone. Using the correct terminology, language and behaviours demonstrates a lot about a person’s attitudes and perceptions of a disabled person’s experience. It is not about political correctness, but it is about showing respect to people regardless of their background or ability and valuing their experience for all it can teach us about life. Using appropriate language helps to change attitudes and perceptions, and avoids perpetuating old stereotypes.

Using good disability etiquette is very simple and ensures that you are treating all individuals with courtesy, dignity and respect.

Things to remember

There is a difference between an impairment and a disability:

  • An impairment is a condition caused by such things as an accident or trauma, disease or genetics that limits a person’s vision, hearing, speech, mobility or mental function
  • A disability is the constraint imposed upon a person, regardless of that person’s ability or impairment. These constraints can be physical or attitudinal. For example, stairs and curbs are disabilities imposed on those who use wheelchairs.

Individuals with disabilities are people, whole people. Recognise the multi-faceted nature of the individual first and not just their impairment. Always remember that the person is not their condition. Keep your speech person-focused, not disability-focused.

Above all relax, speak normally and stand in front to allow eye contact to be made in the same way you would with anyone else. If you do use the wrong words or action, apologise and ask the person what terminology they would personally prefer you use or whether and how they would like you to assist them.

Hints and tips

To help you out, here are some hints and tips on things to avoid and what you can do, or say, as an alternative.


  • Do not victimise. Terms which carry a negative connotation should be avoided e.g. handicap, invalid, spastic.
  • Do use terms that offer an empowering appraisal of someone’s circumstances, such as wheelchair or mobility-aid user, person who is deaf/has a hearing impairment. Learning disability is the term now used to describe a condition which results in impaired intellectual ability.
  • Do not use terms which group people by their disability or describe them by their impairment e.g. epileptics, the disabled.
  • Do use individualised vocabulary that recognises the individual’s experience of life with their impairment, for example persons with X, people with disabilities.


  • Do not make assumptions about what an individual can or can’t do.
  • Do ask what an individual’s access and/or communication needs may be, instead of the details of their impairment. If you really need to know about someone’s impairment, just ask but do not let curiosity get the better of you and ask invasive questions. Consider whether you would ask the same question of a non-disabled person.
  • Do not assume that having to use a wheelchair is a tragedy.
  • Do remember that wheelchairs can be a liberation, offering the user a means of freedom to more fully engage in life.
  • Do not assume that an offer for assistance will automatically be welcome.
  • Do feel free to offer assistance, however if the offer is not accepted you must respect the individual’s wishes, even if you can see they may be struggling. Helping before asking implies the person is incapable and can offend, especially if they have worked hard to be able to care for themselves.


  • Do not pretend to understand someone’s speech when you clearly don’t – and do not speak directly to the disabled person’s attendant rather than speaking directly to them.
  • Do try to communicate directly to the person, making sure to be patient in finding out the communication method that works best for them. Be sure to tell them what you do understand and allow them to respond. They may ask to attendant to interpret for you.
  • Do not talk to a wheelchair user from behind them (e.g. while pushing their chair), or invade their personal space.
  • Do come down to the same level as the wheelchair user as it may be uncomfortable for them to crane their neck to look up at someone looming over them.
  • Do not stand with your back to a bright light source such as a window.
  • Do make sure your face is visible and well lit – this helps those who need to lip-read.
  • Do not speak over someone.
  • Do let them complete their own sentences. Be patient and do not try to speak for them.

Body language

  • Do not move, lean on, rock or touch a person’s wheelchair without permission. A person’s wheelchair is a part of their personal space. In addition to being rude, it can also be dangerous.
  • Do be sure to seek permission if moving or touching the wheelchair is necessary.
  • Do not be afraid to use the same physical contact as you would anyone else
  • Do offer to shake hands even if it appears as if they may have limited use of their arms or have an artificial limb. For those who cannot shake hands or if you’re unsure, a smile along with a spoken greeting is always appropriate.