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Interacting with People with Disabilities



In this article

Disability etiquette

Sensitivity towards people with disabilities is important for personal relationships and also makes good business sense. When service providers—including fitness and wellness professionals—use appropriate language and act respectfully, clients or “students” feel more comfortable and are likely to benefit more fully from programs in which they participate.
People with disabilities are entitled to the same courtesies you would extend to anyone, including personal privacy. If you find it inappropriate to ask people about their sex lives, or their complexions, or their incomes, extend the same courtesy to people with disabilities.
  • If you don't make a habit of leaning or hanging on people, don't lean or hang on someone's wheelchair. Wheelchairs are an extension of personal space.
  • Treat adults as adults. Call a person by his or her first name only when you extend this familiarity to everyone present. Don't patronize people who use wheelchairs by patting them on the head. Reserve this sign of affection for children. 
In conversation...
  • When talking with someone who has a disability, speak directly to him or her, rather than through a companion who may be along.
  • Relax. Don't be embarrassed if you happen to use common expressions, such as "I've got to run", that seem to relate to the person's disability.
  • When talking with a person in a wheelchair for more than a few minutes, place yourself at the wheelchair user's eye level to spare both of you a stiff neck.
  • When greeting a person with a severe loss of vision, always identify yourself and others who may be with you. Say, for example, "On my right is Andy Clark". When conversing in a group, remember to say the name of the person to whom you are speaking to give vocal cue. Speak in a normal tone of voice, indicate when you move from one place to another, and let it be known when the conversation is at an end.
  • Give whole, unhurried attention when you're talking to a person who has difficulty speaking. Keep your manner encouraging rather than correcting, and be patient rather than speak for the person. When necessary, ask questions that require short answers or a nod or shake of the head. Never pretend to understand if you are having difficulty doing so. Repeat what you understand. The person's reaction will guide you to understanding. 
Common courtesies...
  • If you would like to help someone with a disability, ask if he or she wants help before you act, and listen to any instructions the person may want to give.
  • When giving directions to a person in a wheelchair, consider distance, weather conditions and physical obstacles such as stairs, curbs and steep hills.
  • When directing a person with a visual impairment, use specifics such as "left a hundred feet" or "right two yards".
  • Be considerate of the extra time it might take a person with a disability to get things done or said. Let the person set the pace in walking and talking.


What we say and how we say it can either enhance the dignity of those we serve, or inadvertently reflect and perpetuate stereotypes and negative attitudes. How we think affects how we talk and behave.
  • Disability language is about respect, common sense, and common courtesy.
  • Some common words and phrases reinforce prejudices and assumptions.
  • The right language challenges discrimination and stereotypes.
  • Language is continually evolving: not everyone agrees on what is appropriate and what is not.
  • Sincerity and honesty go a long way.
Phrases to avoid
  • Sufferer, afflicted, victim, invalid, crippled, stricken. Use instead: Person/people living with disabilities, person living with MS
  • Wheelchair-bound, confined to a wheelchair. Use instead: Uses a wheelchair; wheelchair-mobile
  • Handicapped/disabled parking. Use instead: Accessible parking
  • Normal person, healthy person. Use instead: Person/people without disability, able-bodied person
  • MS patient/client/person. Use instead: Person with MS/who has MS, person living with MS
  • “MS-ers”. Use instead: People with MS
  • Person suffering from/afflicted with MS; MS sufferer; MS Survivor. Use instead: Person living with/affected by MS
  • When she was stricken with MS. Use instead: When she was diagnosed with MS 
Stereotypes to avoid
  • People living with disabilities are “courageous.”
  • People’s lives are ruined by disease or disability.
  • Disability (MS) dominates a person’s life.
  • Disease or disability was caused by something the person did or did not do.
  • People with disabilities aren’t as smart as other people 
 Adapted from Easter Seals Disability Services. 

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