Interaction & Etiquette Tips

Interaction & Etiquette Tips


People with Disabilities …General Interaction Tips

  • Assistive devices (canes, wheelchairs, crutches, communication boards, etc.) should be respected as personal property.
  • Always direct communication to the individual with the disability. If they are accompanied, do not direct your comments to the companion.
  • Use the same level of formality with everyone present.
  • Relax. Do not be embarrassed if you happen to use common expressions like “See you later” or “Got to be running along” that seem to relate to the person’s disability.
  • It is appropriate to shake hands when introduced to a person with a disability. People who have limited use of their hand or who wear an artificial limb can usually shake hands. Shaking with the left hand is acceptable. For people who cannot shake hands, touch the person on the shoulder or arm to welcome and acknowledge their presence.
  • Focus on the individual and the issue at hand, not the disability.
  • People with disabilities are interested in the same topics of conversation in which people without disabilities are interested.
  • If someone needs you to speak in a louder voice, they will ask.
  • People with disabilities, like all people, are experts on themselves. They know what they like, what they do not like, and what they can and can not do. If you are uncertain what to do, ask. Most people would rather answer a question about protocol than be in an uncomfortable situation.
  • Offer assistance in a dignified manner with sensitivity and respect. Be prepared to have the offer declined. If the offer is accepted, listen to and accept instructions.
  • When mistakes are made, apologize, correct the problem, learn from the mistake and move on.
  • Let people provide information about their disability on their own initiative. They are not responsible for educating the public by sharing their story.


Physical Disabilities

  • Do not make assumptions about what a person can and cannot do.  A person with a physical disability is the best judge of his or her own capabilities.
  • Do not push a person’s wheelchair, or grab the arm of someone walking with difficulty, without asking if you can be of assistance.  Personal space includes a person’s wheelchair, crutches, or other mobility aid. Never move someone’s crutches, walker, cane, or other mobility aid without permission.
  • When speaking with someone using a wheelchair for more than a few minutes, try to find a seat for yourself so the two of you are at eye level.


Visual Disabilities

  • Identify yourself when you approach a person who is blind.  If a new person approaches, introduce him or her.
  • Face the person and speak directly to him or her.  Use a normal tone of voice.
  • Don’t leave without saying you are leaving.
  • If you are offering directions, be as specific as possible, and point out obstacles in the path of travel.  Use clock cues (“the door is at two o’clock.”)
  • Alert people who are blind or visually impaired to posted information.
  • NEVER pet or otherwise distract a guide dog unless the owner has given you permission.
  • You may offer assistance if it seems needed, but if your offer is declined, do not insist.  If your offer is accepted, ask the person how you best can help


Hearing Disabilities

  • Ask the person how he or she prefers to communicate.  (writing notes, lip reading, or need for an interpreter.)
  • If you are speaking through an interpreter, remember that the interpreter may lag a few words behind- especially if there are names, numbers or technical terms that need to be finger spelled.  Pause occasionally to allow him or her time to translate completely and accurately.
  • Talk directly to the person who is deaf or hard of hearing.
  • Before you start to speak, make sure you have the attention of the person you are addressing.  A wave, light touch on the shoulder, or other visual or tactile signals are appropriate ways of getting the person’s attention.
  • Speak in a clear, expressive manner.  Do not over-enunciate or exaggerated words.
  • Unless you are specifically requested to do so, do not raise your voice.  Speak in a normal tone; do not shout.
  • To facilitate lip reading, face into the light, and keep your hands and other objects away from your mouth.
  • If the person is lip reading, face the person directly and maintain eye contact. Don’t turn your back or walk around while talking.  If you look or move away, the person might assume the conversation is over.
  • While you are writing a message for someone who is deaf or hard of hearing, don’t talk, since the person cannot read your note and your lips at the same time.
  • If you do not understand something that is said, ask the person to repeat it or write it down.  The goal is communication; do not pretend to understand if you do not.
  • If you know any sign language, try using it.  It may help you communicate, and it will at least demonstrate your interest in communicating and your willingness to try.

Speech Disabilities

  • Talk to people with speech disabilities as you would talk to anyone else.
  • Be friendly; start up a conversation
  • Be patient; it may take the person a while to answer
  • Give the person your undivided attention
  • Speak in your regular tone of voice
  • Tell the person if you do not understand what he or she is trying to say.  Ask the person to repeat the message, spell it, tell you in a different way, or write it down.
  • To obtain information quickly ask short questions that require brief answers or a head nod.  However, try not to insult the person’s intelligence with over-simplification.

Cognitive Disabilities

  • Treat adults with cognitive disabilities as adults
  • When speaking to someone who has a cognitive disability, try to be alert to their responses so that you can adjust your method of communication if necessary.
  • Use language that is concrete rather than abstract. Be specific; without being too simplistic.
  • People with brain injuries may have short-term memory deficits and may repeat themselves or require information to be repeated.
  • People with auditory perceptual problems may need to have directions repeated, and may take notes to help them remember directions or sequence of task.
  • People with perceptual or “sensory overload” problems may become disorientated or confused if there is too much to absorb at once.  Provide information gradually and clearly.  Reduce background noise if possible.
  • Repeat information using different wording or different communication approach. Allow time for the information to be fully understood.
  • Don’t pretend to understand if you don’t, ask the person to repeat what was said.
  • In conversation, people may respond slowly, so give them time.  Be patient, flexible and supportive.
  • Some people who have a cognitive disability may be easily distracted.  Try not to interpret distraction as rudeness.  Instead, try to redirect politely.
  • Do not expect all people to be able to read well.  Some people may not read at all.


This material is based in part on Achieving Physical and Communication Accessibility, and Community Access Facts from the Institute on Human Centered Design