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Understanding How to Use Proper Etiquette for People with Disabilities

This article is intended to provide a basic understanding of how to use proper disability etiquette. This is an opinion piece that should not be viewed as a source on how to confront every issue involving this group within society. This written perspective therefore, may not be one that is universally held with the various range of emotions people have about their disability. But it should hopefully provide, a couple of scenarios, in which people can begin to be more empathetic instead of intimidated or overly harsh to this group of people.

It's really impossible to understand the full scope of how people with disabilities feel about their conditions. There are countless diagnoses with a full spectrum of severities. People with disabilities also have an assortment of attitudes when it comes to how they confront these conditions day to day. Some people feel their disability is a strength, allowing them to feel empowered and motivated to achieve in spite of adversity. Others feel their disability is a barrier, which prevents them from achieving personal or professional goals. But there are a few things regardless of the circumstances, that should never be said to or implied about a person with a disability.

When it comes to disability etiquette, using the proper terminology with this group is important when addressing their needs. For example, if someone uses something to help them walk, that device should be called by it's proper name. People with physical disabilities may require the use of a walker or a rollator. The device should therefore not be referred to as a cart or a stroller. Taking the time to understand these terms and using them properly, makes people with disabilities feel like functional adults. It also makes the person who learned these terms seem informed and considerate when it comes to the needs of others.

It's also important to understand that the last thing people with disabilities want is to be considered a burden or be made into a spectacle. People that deal with some kind of disability must think about things others look past day to day. An example of this is going into a sporting event where no elevator or hand rails are available. Even though people with disabilities can't participate in the sporting event, they often enjoy it like any other fan. It's also understandable that budget cuts prevent necessary projects from getting done to benefit this group of people. But too often, people with disabilities choose not to attend something because the venue or activity is just too difficult to navigate.

Even though there has been great strides in recent decades to include people with disabilities and make society accessible, more work needs to be done to make a more widespread impact. This includes making sure that every building has a ramp to let walkers and wheelchairs enter independently. It means ensuring that automatic door devices are not only installed but maintained properly. Most importantly, it means taking the time to understand that this group's ability to do anything requires them to use at least twice the energy as someone else. While overcoming adversity is inspiring from the perspective of the rest of society, this group of people is simply doing what is necessary for them to succeed. What people with disabilities accomplish with accommodations is nothing different than what the "average" person would do normally day to day.

It's important to respect the work that goes into learning tasks like walking or driving a car, but at the end of the day, it's no different than anyone else. It's also worth noting that because people with disabilities require more time and training to do routine tasks, they often get frustrated or are sensitive to criticism. People with disabilities are often required to take more time learning life goals. These life goals include earning a driver's license and employment in their desired field. Because these things take longer to achieve, they are often more protective of them. People with disabilities sometimes fear that if they make a mistake during an activity, they will have those things they trained so hard for taken away. So it's key to be patient with this group and be proud of their achievements. Don't joke about an achievement they are proud of or over-emphasize a mistake with this group. They earn their accomplishments and deserve the praise they would give someone else. This group also doesn't deserve to be called out harshly for a mistake any other person might make on something. With how hard this group works and thinks critically day to day, unnecessary criticism is the last thing they need from anyone. Ultimately, when it comes to people with disabilities, it is vitally important to build them up instead of tear them down.

It's also important to understand that when someone addresses somebody with a disability, they don't need to talk loud or slow. One disability does not necessarily indicate another. If somebody is fortunate enough to meet a person with a disability, all they need to do is say hello like anyone else. In fact, act as if they are a parent or a sibling when addressing them. No one should let their family be improperly treated and people with disabilities are the same. The same courteous logic should be applied if somebody has a question about a disability.

The last thing anybody should ask someone with a disability is "what's wrong with you?" The immediate internal response to a question like this for most everybody is "not a damn thing." It's better to ask, "what's your diagnosis?" or "can you tell me about your disability? I'd like to know more about it so I can better understand." These phrases will open up the lines of communication respectfully, allowing people to become more empathetic.

Finally, it's important to know that everyone, yes, everyone has a disability. Some disabilities are more noticeable than others. A person with Cerebral Palsy (CP) is easier to pick out than someone with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Some people may be horrible at math or have an inability to public speak. While these conditions aren't as stigmatized, they are limitations that make things more difficult day to day for some people. In the end, there really is no particular way to correctly address people with disabilities. But without the willingness to think of their feelings first, no progress will be made.


Jimmy Kennedy, who has Cerebral Palsy and has been working as a disability advocate for 18 years, can be reached at

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