Disability Etiquette - Person First Language

Today, we use a concept known as "person-first language." The thinking behind person-first language is that a disability is merely a single characteristic of the individual's personhood. We all have characteristics: race, gender, ethnicity, etc. A person with a disability has a characteristic of a disability. Labeling them by that characteristic is inappropriate, thus calling undue attention to the disability. It is more appropriate to see the person first. Thus, the language talks about "a person with a disability."

Below, please find a list of outdated terms and terms that are acceptable in today's world.


Do Not Use: Preferable Term:

A person with a Disability


A person with a Disability

Victim of

A person with a Disability

Challenged A person with a Disability
Wheelchair-bound A person with a mobility impairment
Epileptic A person with a seizure disorder
Mentally retarted A person with an intellectual disability
Suffering from A person with a Disability
Special A person with a Disability
Hearing impaired A person who is Deaf or hard of hearing
Mentally ill A person with a disability
or a person with a mental or emotional impairment
Blind or visual disability        A person who is Blind or a person with a visual impairment   


How to Include and Assist People with Disabilities

Sign Language Interpreter

When using the services of a sign language interpreter, it is essential to remember to speak directly to the person who is deaf or hard of hearing. The sign language interpreter functions only as a communication conduit and is not a part of the conversation. The code of ethics that sign language interpreters must adhere to mandates strict confidentiality of communications.

Giving Directions to a Person Who Is Blind

When giving directions to a person who is blind or has low vision, it is essential to provide very concise information. For example, rather than saying, "The restroom is over there," one would say, "The women's restroom is 30 feet down the corridor on the right-hand side." When initiating a conversation with a person who is blind, it is advisable to identify yourself and anyone with you so that they know who they are speaking with. It is also essential to let the blind person know when you are leaving. This avoids the situation where the blind person will continue talking to you after you have departed.

Speaking with Persons who are Blind, Mobility Impaired, or Deaf

It is perfectly acceptable when speaking to a person who is blind to use words such as "see" or "show." It is also good to suggest to a wheelchair user that you walk to the corner deli with them to have lunch. Or, in another instance, to ask a person who is deaf if they have heard from a friend lately. Avoiding terms typically used in conversation will only draw attention to the person's disability and make communication with them seem awkward or artificial.

Offering Assistance to a Person with a Disability

It is permissible to ask a disabled person if they need your assistance. They may decline, as many persons with disabilities prefer to function independently. If they accept your offer, your next question should be, "How may I assist you?" Taking guidance from the person with the disability will help make your efforts more effective.

Assistive Devices

When interacting with a person with an assistive device, such as a wheelchair, do not lean on or touch their assistive device. An assistive device or a wheelchair is an extension of their body and part of their personal space. For people who use wheelchairs, it is helpful to sit next to them, adjusting your eye level to theirs, avoiding the difficulty inherent in their continually looking up.

Customer Service Situations

In customer service situations, speak directly to the person with the disability; never make inquiries to their companion regarding what service the person with the disability is requesting. When dining with a companion who is blind, it is appropriate to orient them to their meal upon delivery. This is done by saying, "You have an open-faced sandwich on the left side of your plate with French fries on the right, and your coffee is at 10:00." This simple statement typically assists the person in having a more comfortable dining experience.

Invisible or Hidden Disabilities

Not every person with a disability has an "obvious" impairment. Studies show that 70% of people with disabilities have "hidden" impairments. Many disabilities, for example, muscular, skeletal, neurological, visual, and mental, cannot always be seen. If someone confides that they have a disability and requests assistance, it is appropriate to assist that person or find someone who can. It is not acceptable to make statements that the person does not "look" or "seem" disabled or to assume that since the impairment is not apparent, the person should do what they are requesting assistance with on their own.

Service Animals

Many people with a variety of disabilities use service animals to be able to function independentlyNever touch, distract, or feed the service animal without obtaining permission from its owner. The service animal is working when you encounter it. Distracting it can decrease its performance and create disciplinary problems for its ownerIt is unacceptable to request proof of a disability or certification for a service animal; you may only ask if the animal is a service animal for a person with a disability and what the dog is trained to do. You cannot ask that a service animal be removed for any reason other than for disruptive behavior.

An Attendant

Sometimes, people with disabilities will require the assistance of an attendant. An attendant is anyone that the person with a disability is deemed capable of providing assistance to perform a task or function in an environment. The attendant may or may not be paid to perform the duty. There are many reasons a person may need to be accompanied by an attendant, and it is not acceptable to ask why or to deny the use of an attendant at any time. The attendant is solely there to provide support and assistance to an individual who cannot perform or complete a task independently without their assistance.