Disability Etiquette

Posted on August 13, 2021


County of Marin
Disability Access Program
Accessibility Guidance Bulletin #3

Disability Etiquette

The basic issue to understand is that people with disabilities are not conditions or diseases; they are individual human beings who happen to have disabilities. First, they are people. For example, a person is not an epileptic but rather is “a person with epilepsy”. The simple practice of speaking and thinking of people with disabilities as “people first” can change our perception to one where the disability no longer defines the person but is simply a descriptor (like the color of a person’s eyes or hair).

Reception Etiquette

The first contact an individual has with a county program or service is usually at a reception desk. Therefore, the first impression an individual has about that entire program is often based on how they are first received. Good customer service requires establishing a welcoming environment for all our customers, however, for people with disabilities there are sometimes additional things to consider.

For example, receptionists should know where the closest accessible restrooms, drinking fountains, and telephones are located.

Sometimes people raise their voices unnecessarily when addressing people with disabilities. Use your normal tone when welcoming a person with a disability, unless requested to do otherwise.

When introduced to a person with a disability it is appropriate to offer to shake hands, as you would with anyone else. People with limited hand use or who use a prosthetic limb can usually shake hands.

People with developmental disabilities are not perpetual children. Treat adults in a manner befitting adults. Call a person by their first name only when you are extending that familiarity to all others present.

When speaking to a person who uses a wheelchair, don’t lean on the wheelchair. The wheelchair is a part of the individual’s personal space. When speaking to a person with a disability, speak to that person, not through a companion. When a person is using a sign language interpreter, speak to the person, not the interpreter.

Do not provide assistance where it is not solicited. Offer to assist respectfully and be prepared that your offer may be politely declined. If the offer is accepted, listen carefully and accept direction on how you can be of assistance.

Allow a person with a visual impairment to take your arm (at the elbow). This way you can easily guide the individual rather than direct them.

Conversational Etiquette

When speaking with a person with a disability, first… relax and be yourself. Look and speak directly to the person the same way you would to anyone else. Do not speak through a companion, speak to the person you are conversing with.

Don’t be afraid to use terms like “See you later” to a blind person or “I’ve got to be running” to a person with a mobility impairment. These common expressions are acceptable and appropriate.

When speaking to a person with a hearing impairment, it is acceptable to tap them on the shoulder to get their attention if they are facing away from you. Make eye contact and speak directly to the person in a clear, natural voice. You may want to speak slightly slower than usual at first to determine if the person reads lips. Not all people with hearing impairments read lips. Be considerate by not eating or smoking when communicating with someone who reads lips. Keep your hands away from your mouth when speaking and try to remain in well lighted environments. Shouting will not help. Writing notes may.

When speaking with a person who uses a wheelchair, pull up a chair for yourself. A common eye level will facilitate better communications.

When greeting a person with a significant visual impairment, remember to identify yourself, and others who are with you, at the beginning of your conversation. When speaking in a group, state the name of the person you are speaking to. This will provide cues making it easier to follow group interactions. Make it known when you are finished and when you are leaving.

When conversing with a person who has a speech impairment, listen attentively. Be encouraging, not correcting and do not try to complete sentences for the person. Don’t pretend to understand what you do not understand. Be willing to repeat what you understand and ask directly about what you may have difficulty understanding.

Great thanks to the City and County of San Francisco, Mayor’s Office on Disability for providing text for this Guidance Bulletin.
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