Respectful Interactions: Disability Language and Etiquette

The following is guidance on disability language and etiquette. This guidance sheet's language and actions are suggestions based on what may make some individuals with and without disabilities feel more comfortable and respected, but each individual’s preference is unique.

“People first language” is “best practice” and respectful. The hope is that this guidance will assist people who work with individuals with disabilities to become more comfortable in their interactions. Understandably, any person could have some discomfort around people with specific disabilities, even if they work in a position that keeps them around people with disabilities.

Respectful Language

Outdated Language Recommended Language
The disabled person People with disabilities/An individual with a disability
Mental retardation Intellectual disability
Wheelchair-bound Individual who uses a wheelchair
The deaf/Deaf person People who are deaf/Person who is Deaf
The mentally ill Individuals with psychiatric disabilities
Midget or Dwarf Little Person/Person of short stature
Epileptic Individual who has Epilepsy
Normal Typical


The Basics

Treat individuals with disabilities as you would anyone else while making reasonable accommodations. When organizing an event, have a place in the registration process asking what accommodations (if any) the participant may need. If disseminating materials, note that alternate formats are available by request. 

Speak and direct questions to the individual, not their companion or personal care attendant (PCA). It may be necessary for you to have a conversation with the PCA, but remember that your student or colleague deserves respect and attention.

Be aware that individuals with disabilities may need accommodations to obtain full access. Remember that not all people require the same accommodations, despite similar disabilities. They may feel comfortable using different languages to describe their disabilities if they decide to disclose a need for accommodations.

People First Language

“People first language” means that when describing an individual, they are identified first by the fact that they are a person, not by their disability. An example of “people-first language” would be to call someone “a person who has diabetes” as opposed to “a diabetic.”

Individuals Who Have Physical Disabilities

  • If a person uses a mobility device, remember that the device is a part of the individual’s personal space. Do not lean on the device; use it as a coat hanger, or kick it.
  • If a person is at a much lower height than you due to their disability, it is best not to stand, so they need not look up while speaking. Either:
    • ​Sit in a chair, if there is one handy, or
    • Lean against a wall, a little further back.
  • Even if an individual does not have an arm or hand, hold out your own for a handshake. The individual has encountered this situation before, and you may follow their lead.

Individuals Who Are Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing

Be sure to speak to the individual, not to his or her interpreter or companion. Many individuals who are deaf or hard-of-hearing may use American Sign Language (ASL) and may ask for an interpreter; some may speak spoken English, and some may read lips. Always look at the individual and speak clearly, but do not exaggerate lip movements or speak overly loudly.

Individuals Who Have Visual Disabilities

  • Identify yourself to the person, as they may not recognize your voice even if you have met. Example: “Hi, I’m Susan. May I take your order?”
  • Let the individual know if you are holding out a pen to them or similar.
  • Put a card down at signature lines, so an individual can feel where to sign when needed.
  • Provide Braille and large print programs.
  • Offer your arm for the individual to hold if he or she asks for guidance. Do not simply grab the person’s arm, hand, or cane and pull them.

Intellectual Disabilities

Intellectual disabilities (ID) were formerly known as types of “mental retardation.”  Federal policy, state law, and the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual (DSM) 5 now use the words “intellectual disability.”  The “r-word” is now considered a disrespectful term.

If interacting with a person with an intellectual disability, including a significant learning disability or similar, be sure that they understand their rights and information.  If they do not understand due to the disability, be sure that an advocate is in attendance. The individual may have questions, and you should address those.

In Conversation

It is okay to use phrases such as “Want to go for a walk?”, “Have you seen…?”,  “Did you hear about…?”

If you do not understand something an individual has said, perhaps because they have a communication disorder, do not pretend to understand. Ask them to repeat it.  If you still do not understand, ask the person to write it down. Effective communication is essential, especially in a medical setting, and both patient or client and the professional must know what the other is trying to communicate.

Respectful Interactions in the Workplace

Many individuals with disabilities may seek reasonable accommodations in the workplace, thereby disclosing their disabilities to their employers and perhaps Human Resources. This information is confidential.  Information an individual shares about their disability and their accommodations should not be disclosed to others unless they choose to share it.


Source: Northwest ADA Center