Disability Etiquette Guide

Use Person-First Terms

Disability etiquette begins with using terms that communicate respect.

Person-first terms communicate that you recognize a person is more significant than whatever his or her disability may be.

For example:

  • Instead of "Sue is a disabled person," say, "Sue is a person with a disability."

  Why? Sue's personhood is not disabled. She happens to have a disability.

  • Instead of "John is wheelchair-bound," say, "John uses a wheelchair."

       Why? The wheelchair does not control John. John controls the wheelchair.

Reference a person's disability only if it is relevant to his situation.

More person-first terms.


More on Disability Etiquette

  • Don’t ask “What’s wrong with you?” or “How long have you been like that?”
  • Speak directly and respectfully to a person with a disability rather than to their interpreter, attendant, companion, friend or family member.

  • Greet a person with a service animal first, and only approach the animal if invited to do so. Service animals are not pets.

  • Ask before taking any sort of action to help someone.  If you offer assistance, wait until the offer is accepted. Then listen or ask for instructions.

  • Use "accessible parking” or “accessible stall” instead of “handicapped parking” and "handicapped stall."

  • Do not portray people with disabilities as overly courageous, brave, special, or superhuman. This sounds as if it is unusual for them to have talents and skills or to live life like everyone else.

  • Listen attentively to people whose disability affects their speech.  Wait for them to finish. If necessary, ask short questions that require short answers, or that can be answered with a nod of the head. Never pretend to understand; instead repeat what you have understood and allow the person to respond.  Never talk down or shout at a person. Speak in a normal tone of voice. 

  • Do not pat a person who uses a wheelchair on the head or shoulder or lean against or place your hand on their wheelchair. People with disabilities think of their mobility devices as extensions of their bodies.
  • Identify yourself and others who may be with you when meeting a person with a visual disability. When conversing in a group, remember to identify the person to whom you are speaking.

  • Do not feel uncomfortable about using expressions such as "taking a walk" with a person who uses a wheelchair or "see you later" with a person who is blind. The meaning is understood.


Disability Etiquette Picture

For individual consultation and presentations on disability etiquette, contact

Services and Resources
for People with Disabilities

TTY 703-449-1186

Monday – Friday
8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.


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