Diversity Insight

Disability etiquette: It should be common courtesy

By Marcia Akers

The rules of etiquette define those behaviors that are socially acceptable under particular circumstances. It is not a crime of legal consequence if these unwritten, but widely accepted, standards of proper behavior are broken, but anyone not adhering to them may be ridiculed or ostracized. The Disability Rights Movement popularized the expression “disability etiquette” which describes the guidelines for approaching and interacting with people who have disabilities.

People with disabilities are simply that….people. As it is with all people, those who have a disability have emotions, goals, friends, families, abilities, limitations. And, as it is with all people, those who have a disability deal with life as it presents itself in a way that is comfortable and accommodating so far as they are able and to the extent that our society will allow.

The problem is that society often has been less than accommodating to people with disabilities. In the past the rules of etiquette did not extend to those individuals who need certain adjustments to living that are outside those considered “normal.” People whose speech was slurred were assumed to be mentally incapable. A person with an emotional disability was told to go see his “shrink” because he was “crazy.” People who used wheelchairs or whose vision was limited were not able to move freely within their communities. It was almost impossible for people with disabilities to find suitable employment. Today it is common practice to provide accommodation in the workplace, but still individuals living with disabilities experience stigma and stereotyping on the job.

Start an open dialogue

Beginning a new job or returning to work after an injury is stressful for anyone, but this is especially true if the employee has a disability. Managers should attempt to address concerns of all employees, with and without disabilities, in a relaxed environment and with an open and upfront communications policy.

While acknowledging the responsibility of management, W. Roy Grizzard, Jr., the first assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, says starting the discussion is primarily the responsibility of the person with the disability. Grizzard has a degenerative retinal disorder and is legally blind. In an article at DiversityInc.com, he states that the person with a disability should “get it out there and let your colleagues know if you have any special needs at work to put them at ease. Make them
comfortable. I have no peripheral vision, so I ask co-workers to let me know if they’re in a room when I walk in because it’s likely that I won’t see them.”

However, Grizzard believes a free-flowing exchange of information, needs and expectations cannot be sustained simply by the efforts of one party. In other words, it takes two to tango. He emphasizes that fellow workers should not feel restrained in their conversation while they in the presence of someone who has a disability. “For example,” he says, “ if you have a blind co-worker, you should feel perfectly comfortable asking if they ‘saw’ the baseball game last night. . . .[A] blind person can ‘watch’ that baseball game as well, just in a different way.”

Ask before acting

A person in a wheelchair may need assistance in certain circumstances, but one should not assume that just because she is struggling to get up an incline that she wants help. “Some people are going to want you to assist them and others are not,” observes Michael Takemura, a director at Hewlett-Packard, who has used a wheelchair since the age of 19 after an automobile accident. “We can’t use a cookie-cutter approach and believe everyone with a disability will react the same way,” he says. “Each person is an individual and just as you would [act differently toward] two people without a disability, you’ll find the disabled have different preferences about their personal space and the way they want to be addressed.”

The way people with or without disabilities interact at the workplace varies but is usually determined early in the relationship-building process. Nancy Starnes, chair of the United States Access Board, comments that, “Any time there is someone new [who] is different in some way, there will be discussion that could be about how this person would blend with the team. Those initial doubts are natural. It can and should be discussed. It’s the only way to get beyond what those differences are.”

The unfamiliar can be intimidating

“The first thing is to be sensitive to the fact that most people. . .don’t have a close relationship with someone with a profound disability,” says Takemura. “And if they do, then maybe it’s not on an ongoing basis. . ., or perhaps the one person they have engaged with is someone receptive to assistance, whereas another person might find the mere offer offensive.”
People often are unsure, uncomfortable and sometimes even frightened about interacting with co-workers who have disabilities. What is the proper thing to do or say? The Tennessee Disability Coalition’s website gives some pointers:

  • Avoid asking personal questions about someone’s disability.
  • Don’t assume anything concerning a person’s abilities or limitations.
  • Be polite and friendly when offering assistance and wait until your offer is accepted. Listen or ask for specific instructions.
  • Ask the person whether he would like to shake hands. A smile along with a spoken greeting is always appropriate.
  • At meetings and events create an environment that is welcoming to everyone.
  • Speak directly to the person, not through a companion or interpreter.
  • It is okay to use common expressions like “see you soon” or “I’d better be running along.”
  • Try to put yourself at eye level when talking with someone in a wheelchair.
  • When meeting with a person who has a cognitive or speech impairment keep your communication simple, stay on topic, and repeat the points of the conversation to confirm mutual understanding.\
  • When interacting with someone who is blind, identify yourself and introduce others who are present. Do not leave without first excusing yourself. When guiding someone, never push or pull the person. Offer your arm and allow her to reach for you, then walk slightly ahead.
  • Let a person who is deaf or hard of hearing establish the communication mode, such as lip-reading, sign language or writing notes.
  • Never pet or feed service animals.
  • Do not touch a person’s wheelchair, cane, prosthesis or other equipment. This is their personal space and it is inappropriate to intrude upon it.
  • Use people first terminology. Do not say a disabled or handicapped person. Rather say a person with a disability.

People with disabilities must be considered in a company’s evacuation plan:

  • Compile a voluntary list of people with disabilities who are regulars at your company, including those with temporary disabilities such as pregnancy or broken bones. Also remember to include people who have respiratory problems who might be more easily overcome by smoke or noxious fumes.
  •  Interview each person on the list to plan the most effective way to assist them in case of an emergency.
  • Practice the evacuation procedures and keep the plan up to date.

A useful resource for learning about interacting with individuals living with disabilities is the United Spinal Association’s booklet on Disability Etiquette. You can download it for free at www.unitedspinal.org/pdf/DisabilityEtiquette.pdf.


Marcia Akers is editorial assistant for the Tennessee Workers’ Comp Reporter and Tennessee Attorneys Memo. She has written and edited publications produced by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama, The University of Alabama, and Vanderbilt University. She recently moved to Nashville from Charlottesville, VA, where she worked at the CFA Institute, an international association of financial analysts.