Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

A – Z of Disability Etiquette: How to support people living with a disability

We’ve given our A – Z of Disability a refresh!

Over the years, the way that we interact and communicate with people with a disability has progressed a long way forward. As a community, we are starting to smash old stereotypes and change the way that we perceive disability, but there are still some uncertainties around what is perceived as appropriate.

Although some comments or actions are made with good intent, sometimes they can be offensive or negative towards those with a disability. The most important thing to remember is to treat everyone with respect. Teaching your children and peers about the best disability etiquette is important for progressing forward towards a more inclusive society.

We take you through our A – Z of Disability Etiquette, to ensure that you’re on top of the best language and practice to use when talking to someone living with a disability. This new and improved version has taken pointers from disability advocates, people living with a disability and employees of Independence Australia, to collate the most important and up to date pointers.

It is important to remember that everyone will have their own preferences, this resource is just a guide.

Check out our animated A – Z of Disability Etiquette video below, spoken by our SpinChat educational speaker Joel de Munk.

Ask before you help; it’s not always wanted.

We all need a little help from time to time, but it’s important to respect a person’s independence. Always offer help before you act, but don’t be disheartened if your offer is turned down.

Be patient with how others communicate.

Never rush someone when they are trying to communicate or talk with you, everyone communicates in their own way and some might need a little extra time, be patient and respectful.

Communicate naturally and with expressions.

Expressions help us get our point across when we communicate with each other. Make sure that when you speak to someone with a disability that you aren’t being patronising by slowing down your speech or raising your voice. Just talk as you would to anyone else.

Don’t ask intrusive questions.

Asking questions is a great way to get to know someone, but asking some intrusive and personal questions can be a sensitive topic for some to speak about. What would you say if someone asked you about your medical history? These things are perfectly ok to discuss, but let the person bring it up themselves first, they will talk about it with you if they want to.

Communicate at eye level.

Try to avoid looking down at someone when you’re speaking, kneel or sit down to get at eye level and makes communicating with your expressions easier to see. If your speaking to someone who uses a wheelchair, getting down to their level can help avoid unnecessary neck strain.

Focus on the person, not their disability.

The age old saying, never judge a book by its cover applies to this one, a person’s disability does not define them! When you’re speaking to or interacting with someone, give them your full attention and don’t be quick to place judgement on someone off the basis of their disability.

Don’t use patronising gestures like patting a head or shoulder.

This one goes without saying. Patting someone’s head or shoulder in general can make anyone feel patronised. For people with vision or hearing impairment or loss, a pat on the head without warning can be a bit of a shock.

Host events in accessible spaces.

People living with a disability love to go out and about just as much as anyone else!

Accessible spaces these days span wider than just a wheelchair ramp, more commonly we are seeing improved accessible toilet facilities and sensory sensitive areas are popping up in places like art galleries, museums and even airports. Accessible spaces are an important catalyst for changing our world for a more inclusive society.

Google maps now has an accessible feature that will detail in the overview whether a place is accessible and what features that it has. You can turn this feature on in your settings.

Always respect a person’s choices and independence.

Most of us know ourselves better than anyone else. This sometimes (not always) means that we know what is best for ourselves. Honour and respect the choices that others make and never undermine someone’s independence, just because someone is living with a disability does not mean that they need to rely on others to make decisions or act for them.

Avoid being judgmental.

Passing judgement is a natural occurrence in the human brain, we all react to different things in various ways, but its important to recognise what doesn’t need to be repeated out loud.

This one is a great trait to teach your little ones about, this can help avoid awkward incidents such as whispering, staring and pointing.

Keep paths and accessible car parks clear of barriers.

Never park in an accessible car space or block access ramps or doors just to benefit your own convenience. These spaces are purposely located closer to entryways and entrances to make it easier for those using mobility aids, assistive tech or a wheelchair. Just because this may be a little closer to your destination, doesn’t give you the right to park in these spaces without a valid pass and reason. There is also a nasty fine that we wouldn’t recommend risking for selfishness!

Leave accessible toilets for people with disability.

Accessible facilities often have more space, assistance bars/rails and hoists to cater for those who use a wheelchair, assistance device or mobility aid. If you don’t require the use of these facilities, rethink your need to use the accessible toilet.

Don’t move someone’s wheelchair or assistive devices without permission.

Would you move someone’s bag or belongings out of the way without permission? Most likely not.

When stored, wheelchairs or assistive devices may be left in certain places for a reason, so moving these without permission may compromise someone’s accessibility.

Never assume someone’s access needs. Ask if you’re not sure.

Accessibility is an ever-developing essential need for a more inclusive society, this doesn’t mean that everyone’s access needs will be the same. Always ask to cover all bases, as some access needs may vary in the forms of sensory, audio, visual and mobility.

Avoid offensive language about disability.

Using words like cripple, handicap and wheelchair-bound are outdated terms that belong deep in the past.

A person’s assistive devices or aids do not define who they are or what they are capable of. Sometimes switching your language around can make a world of difference; instead of the phrase ‘wheel-chair bound’, say ‘someone who uses a wheelchair’ and instead of ‘disabled person’, try ‘someone living with a disability’. These small changes in your language helps take the power away from the persons disability, and gives it back to them as individuals.

Do not pat a service dog at work.

When service dogs are on the job, don’t pat them without asking. Sometimes their owner wont mind, but you must always ask first. Service dogs are trained for many different uses, you would never want to distract a service dog away from his important duties, no matter how cute they are!

Be committed to increasing quality of life for people with disabilities.

There are so many ways that you can contribute to helping increasing quality of life for people with disabilities. Donating to charities is one way you can do this, as well as shopping from disability led and inclusive companies.

At Independence Australia, the funds that are generated from our online store go towards funding essential programs that help to support people with a disability. To help someone in need, you can donate here.

Research disability and accessibility to be a better ally.

By reading or watching our A – Z of Disability Etiquette resources, you are already half way there!

Speak directly to the person with the disability.

Always address the person and speak directly to them, ask them questions and speak as you would to anyone else. Avoid addressing their carer, companion or support worker instead of them. Most individuals will be able to think and communicate for themselves and their carer or companion will tell you otherwise. Even if this is the case, the same rule applies still, speak directly to the person.

Give up your seat on public transport if someone else needs it.

This one goes without explaining! Always ask people with a disability, elderly and pregnant women if they would like to take your seat, sometimes the answer will be no, but always offer just in case.

Never pretend to understand what a person is saying. It’s okay to ask for clarification.

If you don’t understand what someone has said, don’t try and pretend to understand them, asking for clarification, no matter how many times, is perfectly ok! Pretending to understand someone when you don’t can potentially cause confusion later in the conversation.

Value the work of people with disability and encourage their input to society.

Employment opportunities for those living with a disability are on the rise, companies are increasingly becoming more inclusive and diverse in hiring and we are seeing more disability led employment programs and opportunities. Disability led companies such as Bus Stop Films, By Indeko and Earshot are a few of our personal favourites.

Be willing to be flexible.

Be flexible to the needs of people living with disability, they may need to meet you at an accessible location, or meet at specific times due to accessible public transport. Most people living with disability will have family members or carers and support workers that are with them for certain times of the day, therefore being as flexible as you can when planning is a welcomed bonus for all parties involved.

See a person’s x factor and not their limitations.

Every person has their own customised set of x factor skills, just because someone is living with a disability, doesn’t mean they don’t have a set of amazing skills. Never overlook someone because of their disability, it does not define them or their capabilities.

We all learn to adapt and change our habits to suit our needs, and just because an able-bodied individual might do something a certain way, doesn’t mean that someone with a disability doesn’t have their own way of doing things, just as effectively as you!

Introduce yourself as you would with anyone else.

Say hello, introduce yourself, use expressions, ask questions and talk to the person as you would with anyone else. It’s polite to introduce yourself to anyone that you meet, and this doesn’t exclude people with a disability.

Zip it! Not everyone wants to talk about their disability.                      

Some people do want to talk about their disability, and some people would rather not. Its best to leave this decision up to the individual. When in doubt, don’t bring it up and pay attention to body language and tone to gauge if someone may be feeling uncomfortable with the discussion.