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DisAbled Women's Network: DAWN ONTARIO


Interacting with
People with DisAbilities

An Etiquette Hand-book

see also Guidebook - Working with People with Disabilities


Table of Contents

A Self Analysis

True or False

  1. Using a wheelchair means the end of a fulfilling life. ____

  2. Slow speech is a sign of a slowed mental process. ____

  3. Having a vision disability means you are unable to give directions ____

  4. People with disabilities are usually in need of, or want, assistance. ____

  5. Most people who are deaf read lips. ____

  6. Being blind means a person lives in total darkness. ____

  7. Hearing impaired and hard of hearing are the same thing. ____

  8. Having a mobility disability does not mean that you have other disabilities. ____

  9. Deaf people can have excellent speech. ____

  10. Most deaf people cannot make sound with their voice. ____

  11. Having a vision disability gives someone super-hearing, super-touchor super-smell. ____

  12. Having slow speech does not mean you can't or don't want to talkfor yourself. ____

  13. Finger spelling is a form of Sign Language. ____

  14. People paralyzed from the waist down cannot have children. ____

  15. People with communication disabilities may be mistaken for a person who is drunk. ____


Why write an etiquette handbook on interacting with people with disabilities?

Because people with disabilities still encounter situations like this:

Last Saturday, Bob and Susan had planned to enjoy a long and well deserved evening out on the town. They had many things to celebrate. Susan had recently been promoted to a full partner at her marketing firm. Bob had just completed three weeks of training for a new position as a service manager. But the icing on the cake was the five-month, 23-day and four-hour anniversary of the birth of their daughter, Michelle. Tonight Michelle was with grandma, and this was their first evening out together in nearly six months.

The new Italian restaurant they selected had a warm and charming old world decor and the food smelled heavenly. The evening was perfect, that is, until the waiter arrived. Susan's heart sank when she felt the waiter tense up and focus all of his attention on Bob. She became uneasy when she realized ordering dinner might become another unpleasant and potentially demeaning encounter.

"Yes sir, what can I get you this evening?" asked the waiter.

"What would you like, Susan?" Bob asked.

"So far, so good." Susan thoughtfully assured herself. "I'll have the three-pasta salad and the lasagna."

"I'm sorry sir, we are out of the lasagna; she'll have to order something else." The waiter was talking to Bob.

The alarms went off in her mind, "Here we go again!" Susan began to dread what she knew would follow. "Excuse me!" she said. "I would appreciate it if you would talk to me about my order."

She congratulated herself on speaking in a cool, even tone. This was the third such encounter this week. She did not appreciate continually having to defend her right to be treated with dignity and respect; especially when she was a paying customer.

"WOULD YOU LIKE TO ORDER SOMETHING ELSE?" The waiter's speech was deliberately loud and slow. He stretched out each word as he spoke it.

"Yes, a new waiter!" She was not happy with the waiter's response. "I would like to see your manager. Now."

Susan thought to herself, "It's the 90's! Why do I still have to deal with people like this?"

The waiter looked surprised and confused. He gave a short nod and hurried over to the serving station to find his supervisor.

"Thank you for letting me handle this, Bob. I know you'd like to jump in and defend me. But you know, that might only reinforce the idea that I can't or shouldn't speak for myself."

"I'm sorry this happened tonight, Sue, but you're doing great."

The waiter now returned to the table, followed by someone dressed in a dark suit.

"Is there something I can help you with?" His pocket pin identified him as "K. Samson."

Once again, Susan found herself having to assert her right to be treated with the dignity every customer is entitled to. "Are you the manager?"


"Is it the policy of your restaurant to treat your customers with disrespect?"

"No mam."

"When I ordered my dinner, why did your waiter tell my friend that I would have to order something else? Why didn't he talk to me, directly?"

"I am sorry you were inconvenienced. I will be sure to talk to him about this."

"The next time your waiter, or any waiter, waits on a customer, make sure they talk directly with the person who is ordering. It is common courtesy."

"I apologize for the situation. How can we serve you this evening?"

The previous scenario was based on a real event that happened when a couple I know went out for a nice, quiet dinner. The names and place were altered, but the situation was real.

In this example, Susan had a disability. It doesn't matter what kind of disability she had. Customers are customers. They all deserve to be treated with the same dignity and respect.


Many people and many hours were involved in the production of the final version of this manual. The entire staff of the Region VI Rehabilitation Continuing Education Program through the leadership of Phil Stinebuck, Training Coordinator, compiled, revised, and edited this work. We gratefully acknowledge the contributions of Burt Pusch and Danielle Strickman.


Through an increased understanding of disability we gain a greater awareness of the impact of attitudinal and environmental barriers in preventing people with disabilities from fully participating in society. This is the overriding purpose for
which this manual was written. We must first understand disability to understand the obstacles facing individuals with disabilities in participating as full citizens in this country.

Only then can we address the barriers in the environment and what put those barriers in the environment - Ourselves!! Our individual attitudes collectively have resulted in an indifferent and inaccessible society. Therefore, we must remove the attitudinal barriers to assure equal access to, and full participation in society.

For this reason, the University of Arkansas authorizes the use of this manual, it's reprint, and dissemination where appropriate to help achieve this purpose.



There have been many efforts to try to increase the awareness of the general public regarding the abilities and strengths of persons with disabilities.

The average person may have few opportunities to get to know a person with a disability. He/she may have had a family member or a friend with a disability, but usually their experiences are limited to one or two people.

Also, many people haven't had an opportunity to get to know people with different types of disabilities in a variety of settings: such as doctors, lawyers, business owners, customers, employees, or neighbors.

Consequently, most people have only a modest idea of how to interact with persons with disabilities. Educating the public on who people with disabilities are, and what they can do, hasn't been a very high priority. Available information is often sketchy or based on misinformation which comes from traditional,
often outdated, beliefs about people with disabilities.

"Interacting with People with Disabilities: An Etiquette Hand-book" was put together in order to promote a better understanding of the abilities of people with disabilities and to offer some helpful advice in terms of communicating and
interacting with people with disabilities.

The handbook is designed to do three things:

1. Eliminate Myths

Various myths about people with disabilities will be explored and demythed. New ideas about how people with disabilities wish to be perceived will be presented.

2. Provide Communication and Etiquette

The booklet will introduce some basic etiquette and communication principles for interacting with persons with disabilities.

3. Reduce Attitudinal Barriers

An attitudinal barrier is a way of thinking or feeling which results in behavior that limits the potential of people with disabilities from being independent or full participants in society.

While this book offers general guidelines on interacting with persons with disabilities, it is not at all inclusive. Every person has his or her own preferences in terms of how they want to be treated and what they would like to be called. So the best advice may be, "When in doubt, ask."

TOP of page

The Basics

The following basic ideas should be kept in mind when interacting with all persons with disabilities, regardless of the disability.

People with Disabilities are People

A basic idea promoted throughout this booklet is that people with disabilities are just that, people. They have the same desire to participate in, and contribute to their communities as everyone else. They also have the same desire as everyone else to be treated with dignity and respect.

People with Disabilities are Whole People

People with disabilities are whole people. Having a disability is only one aspect of a person's life. There are many more parts to a person's life than simply having a disability. For example, someone may be an artist, father, employer, friend and also be a person with a disability.

Having a Disability, Doesn't Mean a Person is Disabled

Having a physical difference doesn't automatically make a person disabled. Many factors come into play: attitudes, the percentage of the population with the same physical difference, and environmental accommodations are just a few.

For example, most people who wear glasses don't think of themselves as being visually disabled. Yet, eyeglasses and contact lenses are corrections for a vision disability. With this special accommodation, people are able to work, play, and live in their communities.

In our society, wearing eyeglasses or contacts has become so acceptable that we don't think of it as an accommodation for a physical limitation.

Everyone Uses Technology To Do What Their Bodies Cannot

A thousand years ago, we used horses and oxen to compensate for the inability of our legs to travel great distances in a safe and timely manner. Hundreds of years later, we designed devices that moved us faster, further, and more comfortably. Today, we matter-of-factly use technology to change our environment to accomplish what our bodies cannot. In fact, our feet cannot
carry us in the same amount of time, or with the same amount of comfort as planes, cars, and even shoes can.

We are so used to the idea of controlling the world around us that we forget just how dependent we are on the devices we've created. For example:

1. Transportation

Planes. We are able to travel from coast to coast in about four hours. Several centuries ago, the same trip would have taken a lifetime by foot.

Cars. We can jump on a bus or in a car and go 55 miles in just one hour.

Shoes. We have even built foot coverings (shoes) which not only protect our feet, but enable us to jump higher and run faster.

2. Communication

Speech. Without help our voices will carry only a few yards. With a phone we can talk to someone hundreds or thousands of miles away.

Hearing. Our ears have a limited listening range. Yet with a phone or radio we listen to information and entertainment from nearly everywhere in the world.

Sight. With television we can see well beyond the limits of our eyes. We can see realtime events and pictures from all over the world. Eyeglasses and contact lenses help us to see when our vision isn't 20/20.

People with disabilities use technology for the same reasons, but in different ways. For example:

1. Transportation: A wheelchair, or other mobility device, is a form of transportation.

2. Communication: A TDD (Telecommunication Device for the Deaf) orTT (Text Telephone) is a way to communicate by phone. Braille is a system for reading and writing.

Word Power

Words are very powerful. They are like the paint an artist uses to express their impressions of the world around them. We use words in the same way. With words, we paint the limits and possibilities of our reality.

Perhaps the language we use is the most telling example of how we perceive the value of people with disabilities in our society.

To find out how powerful words can be for defining the potentials or limitations of persons with disabilities, try this exercise.

1. Read the following words out loud.

- cripple - handicapped - deaf and dumb - blind - victim - disabled

These are considered BAD words. They focus attention on the disability, not the person. They encourage ideas of pity and helplessness. They suggest that the person has no value or dignity as a whole human being.

2. Now, read these words out loud.

- person with a disability
- person with a vision disability
- person who is deaf

These are considered GOOD words. They express the personhood of the individual. They make us realize that having a disability is just a part of a person's life.

3. Close your eyes and say the words again to yourself. Then compare thetypes of images and feelings the different words create.

a. What type of impressions and feelings did the words "cripple," "deaf and dumb," or "victim" leave? Images of helplessness, pity, or hopelessness?

b. What type of impressions and feelings did the words "person with a disability," "person with a vision disability," or "person who is deaf" leave? Images of a partial or specific disability, more wholeness, or ability?

Try one more exercise.

1. Read the following terms out loud.

Bad Words:
- "palsy" ...
- "sightless" ... person.
- "deaf and dumb" ... person.
- "disabled" ... person.

2. Now read these words out loud.

Good Words:
- "A person with" ... cerebral palsy.
- "A person with" ... a vision disability.
- "A person with" ... a hearing disability.
- "A person with" ... a disability.

3. Close your eyes and say the words to yourself.

Now compare the types of images and feelings these words create.

a. What type of impressions and feelings did the term "disabled person" leave? Images of weakness, sadness, or total incapacity?

b. What type of impressions and feelings did the term "person with a disability" leave? Images of ownership, strength, or ability?

4. Now exchange the term "person" for a role; i.e., mother, father, boss, employee, playmate, friend, etc., and do this second exercise over again. Listen to the whole message the words convey.

Words are very powerful. They reinforce our ideas of who we are and who and what we expect we can be. Avoid using words which suggest helplessness or infirmity, such as: crippled, victim, handicapped, disabled or invalid. (This last word actually comes from the phrase "in-valid.")

Since having a disability is a part of the lives of people with disabilities, generally speaking, it is not a good idea to totally drop any reference to the disability. However, it is healthy to try to put the disability into the context of the
whole person.

There are always exceptions to every rule. Generally speaking, when you are describing a person with a disability, we should use words that emphasize the personhood, wholeness, and abilities of the person. Such as:

- "person with cerebral palsy"
- "person with a vision disability"
- "person with a hearing disability"
- "person with a disability"

However, when a term has gained intrinsic strength among a large group of persons with a specific disability, the personhood rule may be suspended in favor of political or cultural preferences.

For example: "The Deaf"

This term is considered culturally appropriate and is preferred over the terms "persons who are deaf" or "persons with hearing disabilities" by international organizations of people who are deaf.

The Two Golden Rules of Etiquette.

The following two basic rules of etiquette should be used when interacting with persons with disabilities, regardless of the disability.

Rule 1: Talk directly to the person

If you have a question to ask or a comment to make, be sure that your communication is directed towards the person for whom it is intended. Speak to a person with a disability as you would to anyone else, concentrating on the purpose or reason you are communicating. Direct your communication to the person with a disability, even if they use a speech device or an interpreter to
communicate to you.

A common mistake is to talk to anyone other than the person with a disability. It is very rude, impolite, and inappropriate to turn to someone else and ask, "What does s/he want?" Talk directly to the person with the disability. DO NOT address any questions regarding the interests or needs of the person with a
disability to anyone except the person with the disability.

Rule 2: When in doubt, ASK

If you're not sure how a person communicates, or what they want, the best thing to do is ask. If talking to a person with a disability makes you uncomfortable, take your time, be polite, and let the person know that this is a new situation for you.

Remember Rule 1: Speak directly to the person with the disability

Offering Assistance

Here are some helpful pointers to keep in mind when you are trying to decide whether or not to provide assistance.

1. It is okay to offer assistance

Like everyone, there are times when a person with a disability wants assistance and there are times when they don't. Everyone appreciates some assistance now and then. And most people, including people with disabilities, like to assist
someone once in a while.

While it is appropriate to offer assistance, it is not appropriate to spontaneously provide assistance. Doing so assumes that the person with a disability needs or wants it. Never assume someone needs or wants your assistance.

Remember Rule 2: When in doubt ASK

2. Ask before providing assistance

When you don't want or need assistance, the last thing you want is someone "helping" you. Before assisting a person with a disability, ask them whether or not they would like assistance. They may say "yes" or "no." The important
thing is to let the person with the disability make the decision.

3. Clarify what type of assistance is desired

Everyone has their own way of doing things.

Some ways work better than others. Before assisting a person with a disability, ask them how you can best assist. Let them tell you how they would like to be assisted.

These basic ideas apply to interacting with persons with all kinds of disabilities, whether they are people with mobility disabilities, people with hearing disabilities, people with vision disabilities, people with communication disabilities, people with mental disabilities, substance abuse, or other health
conditions such as arthritis, multiple sclerosis, AIDS, cancer, etc.

TOP of page

People with Mobility Disabilities

Just the Facts

1. Signs, signs, everywhere are signs

Almost everywhere you go now-a-days you can see the international symbol of accessibility (the white wheelchair figure on a blue background). You see it in parking areas, restrooms, and on the front of buildings. However, increased awareness doesn't necessarily result in increased accessibility. These signs can be very misleading.

While a few genuinely accessible facilities do exist, a majority of facilities and services identified with an "accessible" symbol are not. The white and blue symbol of accessibility doesn't assure that facilities actually are accessible.

For example:

"Handicapped Parking"

Many "handicapped" parking spaces are inaccessible. While they may be reserved for persons with disabilities, their size or location can actually impair a
person's ability to get in and out of their car.

Accessible parking spaces are supposed to be 13 feet wide. The additional width is necessary to get a car door open wide enough to get in and out of the car or to use an electric lift for getting in and out of a van.

When was the last time you saw a "handicapped" parking space that was a minimum of 13 feet wide?

"Access Ramps"

Ramps are supposed to have a slope no greater than 1 inch of height for every 12 inches of length. Not all ramps meet this requirement and therefore are not accessible. When a ramp with a slope steeper than the 1- to 12-inch
requirement is referred to as "accessible," it is very misleading and can be potentially dangerous.

2. My Chair, My Body

A wheelchair or a walker may look like just another piece of equipment. However, people who use a wheelchair, walker, or cane often consider this technology as an extension of their body.

Wheelchairs are NOT footstools, stepladders, or fire hazards. They are part of a person's person and should be treated with the same dignity and respect.

Touching or handling someone's wheelchair or other mobility tool may be seen as the same as touching or handling the person's body and may be considered inappropriate without the permission of the individual.

Myth Blasting

The international symbol of accessibility does not assure that a building or activity is accessible.

Touching or handling a person's wheelchair, walker, or other mobility device can be the same as touching their body.

People with paralysis can and do have children.

Having a mobility disability does NOT mean that you have other disabilities.

Using a wheelchair or other mobility device does NOT constitute an inability to achieve a fulfilling life and a satisfying lifestyle.


1. Talk face to face

Be sure to face a person with a disability when talking to them. Carrying on a conversation with someone from behind, especially if you're standing over them, isn't very respectful of their dignity.

2. Look me in the eye when you say that

Quite often people who use wheelchairs have to look up at the person who is talking to them. This puts a strain on the person who is forced to look up at the person talking. This may also communicate an unequal status. Try to establish level eye contact by getting a chair and sitting down.

3. Empathetic mumbo-jumbo

Don't feel compelled to communicate your empathic impressions of what it must be like to use a wheelchair.

Having had a temporary disability, or having known a relative who used a wheelchair, may give you an experience with using a wheelchair or knowing someone who did; however, it does not tell you about someone else's experience.

Each person's experience is different. There are people who would say being in a wheelchair is the best thing that ever happened to them. There are other people who wouldn't agree.

If you're trying to bridge any social distance you might feel, talk about something that you both have in common like work, recreation, sports, etc.


Words are very powerful. Think about these typical phrases:

"Confined to a wheelchair"

This author doesn't know of anyone who is absolutely, totally confined to a wheelchair by ropes, chains or a court order.

"Wheelchair bound"

When the author hears this term, he is reminded of an image where a person is crawling towards their chair singing "Hi, ho, hi, ho it's off to chair I go...."

"Wheelchair Person"

When the author hears this term, he thinks of a wheelchair which has eyes, ears, a nose and a mouth. This term will dehumanize the person.

Use words that promote the personhood and abilities of the individual rather than a device they use or a physical limitation they have. For example:

"A person with a mobility disability"

- or -

"A person with a disability"

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People with Hearing Disabilities

Just the Facts

1."Hearing disability," "hard of hearing," and "deaf" mean different things

Most people think that "hearing disability," "hard of hearing," and "deaf" refer to the same thing. They don't. The term "hearing disability" refers to persons who are hard of hearing AND persons who are deaf.

Persons who are deaf and persons who are hard of hearing feel it is important to be recognized for their distinctive differences. An agreement between the World
Federation of the Deaf and the International Federation of the Hard of Hearing has defined the difference between "deaf" and "hard of hearing."

The distinction is that "deaf people seek to utilize their vision skills for communicating while hard of hearing persons seek ways to retain their listening and speaking skills. Therefore, their concerns, needs, and emphases are different."

The range of hearing disabilities, like other disabilities, is composed of a variety of types and degrees. A person who is hard of hearing may hear only specific pitches, high or low, or a specific range of tones in between. (Think of the octaves on a piano.) Hard of hearing may also refer to volume. Persons who are hard of hearing may only hear loud sounds.

People who have some hearing may choose to rely more on speech for communicating. People who are deaf may choose to rely on Sign Language for communication. It is important to understand that a hearing loss may affect people differently.

2. All hard of hearing and deaf people do not read lips

One of the greatest fallacies regarding persons who are hard of hearing or deaf is that they speech read lips very well. Research indicates that less than thirty percent of spoken English sounds are visible, and that fifty percent of English sounds look like another sound on the lips.

3. Most deaf people have some vocal capacity

Another myth about deaf people is they can't vocalize. Most deaf people have normal vocal organs and can vocalize. However, because of cultural issues, a lack of auditory cues, role models, or training, deaf people may choose not to vocalize.

4.Communication used by deaf people

Deaf people use a variety of ways to communicate. They may choose to speak, speech read, write, or use a variety of "signed communication." Signed communication is a term referring to the use of fingerspelling (manually spelling
letters with your fingers), American Sign Language, or a variety of signed English systems. These have different grammatical structures and may be mixed together.

American Sign Language (ASL) is the definitive language of the deaf culture and is used by many deaf people throughout the United States and parts of Canada. Like all natural languages, ASL has its own rules for grammar and conversational structures to convey information and ideas.

Myth Blasting

Hard of hearing does not mean deaf.

All people who are deaf or hard of hearing can NOT read lips.

Most deaf people have normal vocal organs and can vocalize.

Some deaf people DO have excellent speech.

Finger spelling is NOT the same as Sign Language.

Many deaf or hard of hearing enjoy music, theater, and movies.

Being deaf or hard of hearing does NOT mean that you have other disabilities.

Being deaf or hard of hearing does NOT constitute an inability to achieve a fulfilling life and a satisfying lifestyle.


1. Communicating with a TDD or TT

"TDD" stands for "Telecommunication Device for the Deaf" and may also be referred to as a "TT" for "Text Telephone." Either term is acceptable and refers to a small compact device that looks like a small typewriter keyboard with
an LED screen. You type messages using the keyboard and read messages from the screen.

When typing your message on the TDD, make your communication clear, simple, and concise. When reading messages, be aware that abbreviations and ASL grammar may make the translation take a little longer. Try to focus on the whole message being conveyed, rather than trying to figure out individual words or phrases.

You need to know the abbreviations GA, Q and SK when communicating via a TDD. Type "GA" (go ahead) when you want the other person to start typing. When you read "GA," it is your turn to type. When you ask a question, type "Q" instead of a question mark. Type "SK" when you want to conclude your
conversation. When you read "SK," type "SKSK" if you are completely finished talking. When both you and the person you are talking to have typed "SK," your conversation has ended and you can hang-up your phone and turn off your TDD.

If you work or live in a place that has telephones and TDDs and you answer a ringing phone and hear a beeping sound or silence, DON'T hang-up, it may be a TDD call.

If you know how to use a TDD, answer the call. If you don't know how to use a TDD, find someone who can answer the call, or use a telephone relay system. Just DON'T hang-up.

Don't type your message while the other person is typing their message. Only one person at a time can type and send their message via a TDD over the phone.

2. Using an interpreter

Always, always address your comments, questions, and concerns directly to the deaf person to whom you are talking. Even if you are using an interpreter, speak directly to the person with the hearing disability. Treat the interpreter as a foreign language translator; that's their role, nothing more.

Never talk to the interpreter or solicit information about the deaf person from the interpreter. Look at and communicate directly to the deaf person. The interpreter's job is to translate language, not interpret, mediate, or negotiate.

For example, do NOT speak to the interpreter and say, "Ask him where he would like to sit." Instead, speak directly to the person you are talking to and say, "Mr. Johnson, where would you like to sit?"

Always use a qualified interpreter. Never use someone who knows "a little" sign language. Using someone who knows a little sign language is like using a foreign language interpreter who knows just a little English.


Never use the word "dumb" to denote a person who is hard of hearing or deaf. Use words which appropriately describe the person's abilities, such as, "a person who is hard of hearing."

Remember that "the deaf" or "deaf person" is an exception to this rule. The terms "the deaf" or "deaf person" are preferred by national organizations of persons who are deaf.

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People with Vision Disabilities

Just the Facts

1.Blind doesn't mean blind

One of the most common myths about persons with vision disabilities is that they live in a world of total darkness. The range of vision disabilities, like other
disabilities, is varied. For example, some people have peripheral vision while others have central vision. Some people have clouded vision while others may have multiple vision. Some people have a combination of many types of vision.

The concept of darkness is not relevant to most persons with vision disabilities. Someone who has no vision at all may not "see" any darkness.

2. SUPERSENSES is super-senseless

Having a vision disability does not give someone super-hearing, super-smell, super-taste, or super-touch. Persons with vision disabilities may learn to pay more attention to their other senses. However, paying closer attention to other
senses is learned. The other senses do not "become" super senses.

The senses of a person with a vision disability are not naturally heightened as a result of their vision disability.

3. Persons with vision disabilities have strengths and weaknesses like everyone else

People who are blind or have a vision disability may have a very good sense of their location and direction as they are traveling. Having a vision disability
doesn't automatically mean that someone needs assistance. Some people who are blind are very good navigators in familiar surroundings where they live, work, and play. Other people who are blind may not have developed these skills. Like everyone else, persons with disabilities will vary in their interests, skills, and abilities.

Myth Blasting

Having a vision disability does NOT mean a person lives in total darkness.

Having a vision disability does not GIVE someone super-hearing, super-smell, super-taste, or super-touch.

Having a vision disability does NOT mean you do not know where you are or where you want to go. Having a vision disability, or being blind, does NOT mean that you have other disabilities.

Having a vision disability does NOT constitute an inability to achieve a fulfilling life and a satisfying lifestyle.


1. Memory games are rude

Always identify yourself verbally when addressing a person with a vision disability. Most people with vision disabilities find it very rude and impolite to have someone come up to them and say, "Do you remember my voice?"

2. Communication

For some reason persons with vision disabilities are often shouted at. (Interestingly, this behavior contradicts the myth of super-hearing.) Use your normal tone of voice; don't shout.

It is okay to use vision references such as "see" or "look."

3. Orientation

It is considered polite to indicate your position with a light tap on the shoulder or hand (as in the case of a handshake or when offering mobility assistance). However, keep your physical contact reserved.

It is very important to identify yourself when you approach a person with a vision disability and to tell them when you are leaving the conversation or area.

4. Assistance

For mobility assistance, the best practice is to offer your elbow and allow the person with the vision disability to direct you when assisting him/her with their
mobility. Don't push, don't propel, or grab the person or any part of their body and attempt to lead them; groping is quite impolite.

5. Service animals

A guide dog, like all service animals, should never be petted or talked to without the permission of its owner. Guide dogs, when in harness, are working and should not be distracted.


Avoid cliches' where "blind" is used to mean "stupid," such as:

- The blind leading the blind.
- What are you ... blind?
- I'm not "blind" you know.

Use words which convey the abilities and wholeness of the person.

- Person with a vision disability.
- Person who is blind.

People with Communication Disabilities

Just the Facts

Speech disabilities range from problems with articulation, or voice strength, to complete voicelessness. They include difficulties in projection, as in chronic hoarseness and esophageal speech; fluency problems, as in stuttering and
stammering; and the nominal aphasia that alters the articulation of particular words or terms.

1. I can speak for myself

Having a communication disability does not mean that a person does not desire to speak for himself. Most persons with communication disabilities do wish to speak for themselves. However, more often than not, other people feel compelled to try to speak for them. In most cases, "normal" people do not give the person with the communication disability the time they need to speak for themselves.

2. Not having clear speech does not mean I'm stupid

If a person has difficulty communicating verbally it does not mean that he is not capable of thinking for himself. Having difficulty speaking does not mean a person is unintelligent.

3. Avoidance is the number one response

The number one issue that people with communication disabilities have regarding communicating with other people is patience. Generally speaking, most people aren't willing to give people with communication disabilities the time they need to send their message. It seems that most people exercise avoidance or impatience when interacting with a person with a communication disability.

4. Telephone Avoidance

Communicating to another person on the telephone can be a nightmare for a person with a communication disability. Persons with communication disabilities reported that when they make a phone call the people who answer the phone usually take action which immediately ends the conversation.

For example, most people would:

a. Immediately say, "I can't understand you." and/or
b. Put them on hold, and/or
c. Promptly refer the call to their supervisor

5. Listening pays off

In most cases, persons with communication disabilities can be understood if the listener takes the time to listen to what they have to say.

In conducting interviews with persons with severe communication disabilities for this handbook, the author was surprised by the ease with which he was able to understand what people were saying after two to four minutes of attentive

Myth Blasting

Having slow speech, or any speech difference, does not mean you can't or don't want to talk for yourself.

Slow speech does not equal a slow mind.

Having a communication disability does not mean a person is drunk.

Having a communication disability does NOT mean that you have other disabilities.

Having slow or difficult speech does NOT constitute an inability to achieve a fulfilling life and a satisfying lifestyle.


1. Take time, relax, and listen

Be patient, give the person the time they desire to be able to speak for themselves. Focus your attention on what is being communicated. Don't be afraid that you can't deal with the person who has a communication disability. With a little time and patience, you can comfortably converse with a person with a communication disability.

Trying to rush the conversation or second guess what a person has to say may only increase their stress and reduce effective communication. Speed is not the goal. If you push for quick answers, it can make it more difficult for the person with the communication disability to answer.

2. It's okay to say, "I don't understand"

It is okay to say, "I don't understand," if you have given someone the time and patience they require to send their message.

3. Solicit and provide feedback

If necessary, repeat your understanding of the message in order to clarify and/or confirm what was said. Or, ask to have information repeated. Sometimes spelling words can be helpful.

If you are experiencing some difficulty communicating, explain what you would like to do to facilitate the communication. Be sure to solicit feedback on your proposed solution before taking action.

4. Reduce or eliminate background noise

By reducing or eliminating background noise, it may be easier to focus on the conversation.

5. Treat persons with communication disabilities with dignity and respect; listen to their words

Don't engage in avoidance responses like:

a. Immediately putting them on hold.
b. Immediately getting someone else to talk with them.
c. Immediately saying "I don't understand."
d. Asking to talk to someone else about what the person with the communication disability may need or want.

6. Encourage the use of a telephone relay system if they do not use a TDD or TT


Don't use language which focuses attention on the disability, such as:

- Slurred speech
- Unintelligible speech

Use words which more appropriately put the disability into perspective:

- Person with a communication disability
- Person with slow speech
- Person who uses artificial speech

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People with Learning Disabilities

Just the Facts

1. May be a "hidden" disability.

2. People with learning disabilities often have average to superior intelligence. They are NOT slow, lazy, or unmotivated.

3. Learning disabilities are a group of conditions (probably neurological in origin) that cause significant difficulties in perception. The particular disability might be
in the area of auditory, visual, or spatial perception.

4. Learning disabilities may affect writing (dysgraphia), reading (dyslexia), mathematics (dyscalculia), listening comprehension, and/or oral expression.

5. Learning disabilities cause significant discrepancy between intellectual capacity and individual achievement.

6. The type of accommodation and learning strategies vary with the exact nature of the individual's disability. Additionally, when the person with a learning
disability has an oral language deficit, it is difficult for them to express their needs.

Myth Blasting

People with learning disabilities are NOT unintelligent.


1.Do NOT assume a person with a learning disability is a slow learner or performer.

2.Learn about the individual's strengths and weaknesses.

3.Ask for the individual's assistance in planning accommodations.

People with Psychiatric Disabilities

Just the Facts

1. There are many different types of psychiatric illnesses, and each individual diagnosis is determined by a variety of factors.

2. The wide range of behaviours associated with mental illness may vary from indifference to disruptiveness. When the illness is active, the individual may or may not be at risk of harming himself or others.

3. The wide range of behaviours include, but are not limited to: depression, feelings of hopelessness, sadness, apathy, inattention, poor concentration, fatigue, sleep or eating disturbances, anxiety, withdrawal, constant talking, joking, fantasizing, or extreme fear or panic.

4. Many psychiatric disabilities are controlled by medication and have little effect on learning. However, many medications have side effects which may cause drowsiness or disorientation, and may also affect learning.

Myth Blasting

People who have a psychiatricl illness DO NOT have a cognitive disability.

People with a psychiatric disability are NOT "crazy."

People with Epilepsy

Just the Facts

1. Also known as a "seizure disorder," characterized by a sudden overload of electrical energy in the brain.

2. Seizures may range from "absence" (formerly called petit mal) to "generalized" (formerly called grand mal).

3. Most (approximately 65%) seizure disorders are controlled with medication, and most have infrequent seizures while on medication.

Myth Blasting

A person cannot swallow his/her tongue during a seizure.

People who have epilepsy are not violent against themselves or others during a seizure. But, certain safety precautions should be taken so that no one is hurt

When a person is having a seizure you should NOT place anything in his/her mouth.

Epilepsy does NOT prevent people from participating in sports, work, or social activities.


1 .Education about seizures will reduce fear and myths.

2. Discuss with the person with a seizure disorder their particular needs.

3. Assist during a seizure by protecting the individual from environmental safety hazards (move sharp objects, place pillow under head).

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People with Other Disabilities

Head [Brain] Trauma

"Invisible" yet common -- about 3 million Americans have head injuries each year, but most injuries are minor.

Major head trauma can manifest itself in headaches, dizziness, uncharacteristic behaviors, personality changes, and cognitive difficulties.

Lasting effects may include difficulties in seeing and thinking; limited ability to plan or organize activities; inability to control emotions.


Includes more than 100 diseases that involved inflammation of the joints, such as gout, lupus, and scleroderma (thickening of skin).

The #1 physically disabling condition in the U.S.

Chronic condition with no known cure; affects all ages.

Can be controlled with medication, rest, and

Multiple Sclerosis

Disease of the nervous system.

Symptoms can come and go; may be mild or severe; may include partial or complete paralysis of arms or legs, numbness, slurred speech, loss of coordination; progressive but at individually varied rate.

Usually strikes adults from ages 20 to 40.


Alcoholism is a chronic, progressive, and potentially fatal disease (not a character flaw or lack of will power as it was once regarded).

Substance Abuse

Most mental health professionals also regard substance abuse as an addictive disease.

Substance abuse is a condition of physiological and/or psychological dependence on any of a variety of chemicals.

Cardiovascular Diseases

Includes heart attacks and strokes.


Chronic disorder that can be managed with proper treatment and regular eating schedule.

Not all diabetics require insulin injections; "maturity-onset" diabetes is treated mainly through diet and body weight control.

AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome)

A progressive failure of the immune system; usually fatal.

Transmitted only when the virus passes directly from the body of a person with AIDS to one without it via bodily fluids or blood.

People who test positive for HIV may develop AIDS, but do not automatically have AIDS.

Persons with AIDS may be afraid to reveal their condition because of the social stigma, fear and/or misunderstanding surrounding this illness. It is therefore
exceptionally important that the strictness of confidentiality be observed.


Describes more than 100 diseases, none of which is contagious.

Not necessarily fatal--almost half of all people with cancer live for five or more years after being diagnosed.

Other Mobility & Hand-Function Impairments

A wide range of conditions may limit mobility and/or hand function.

Among the most common permanent disorders are such musculoskeletal disabilities as partial or total paralysis, amputation or severe injury, arthritis, active sickle cell disease, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis and cerebral

Respiratory and cardiac diseases, which are debilitating, may consequently affect mobility.

Any of these conditions may also impair the strength, speed, endurance, coordination and dexterity that are necessary for proper hand function.


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