Accessible Language: A Guide for Disability Etiquette

The use of certain words or phrases can express bias either intentionally or unintentionally.  Below are some general rules for writing or talking about people with disabilities, followed by tips on interacting, and a short glossary of outdated terms and suggested alternatives.  Many of the terms are slightly longer, but using them will foster more positive and respectful communication with and about persons with disabilities.

PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES: “Handicapped” has a negative connotation for many people, so the common term is “person with a disability.” Handicap describes a condition or barrier caused by society or the environment, i.e., “She is handicapped by inaccessible transportation,” or “stairs are a handicap to him.”

PERSON FIRST:  The person precedes the disability, both figuratively and literally.  It’s “people with disabilities,” not “disabled persons,” and “person with paraplegia” not “paraplegic.”  However, this is not a hard and fast rule as some groups actually prefer the disability first or use the term “disabled.”  Some individuals may refer to themselves as a “cripple,” “crip,” “autistic” and/or “disabled.”  This is an example of in-group vs. outgroup language identification.

AVOID PITY:  People with disabilities are not “victims.” As one woman who uses a wheelchair noted, “I am not a wheelchair victim.  Wheelchair victims are the people I bump into with my footrest at the supermarket.” Nor should people be described as “inspirational” or “courageous” just because they have a disability. People with disabilities are also not “suffering” or “struggling.”  They may be managing and/or celebrating their symptoms and diagnosis!  Suffering is optional, and subjective.

AVOID BEING CUTE:  Terms like “physically challenged,” “special” and “differently-abled” are patronizing.  If appropriate, note that a person has a physical, sensory, or mental impairment and leave it at that.  Also, people without disabilities are not “normal”  because that infers that people with disabilities are “abnormal.”  Rather, they are “non-disabled” or “able-bodied (AB).”

DISABILITY SIMULATIONS:  Please note it is always offensive to pretend to have a disability and disability simulation experiences should be done for design/navigational purposes only.


When introduced to a person with a disability, it is polite to shake hands.  Most people with limited use of their hands, or artificial limbs, can shake hands.  If you are not sure, let the other person make the first move or ask.

Adults should be treated as adults.  The presence of a physical impairment does not necessarily mean someone has a mental impairment as well.  So, treat people with disabilities with the same respect you treat others; speak directly to them instead of to a companion or interpreter who may be present.

Common expressions such as “see you later” or “I’ve got to run along” are not insulting to those who cannot, so do not feel uncomfortable if they creep into your conversation.  However, you can examine how you can alter your everyday language to be more inclusive.  Do not be embarrassed to offer to help someone with a disability, but wait until the offer is accepted and instructions are given before proceeding. Be gracious if you offer to assist is declined.


Ask questions that can be answered in a few words or with a nod of the head.  Do not pretend to understand if you do not.  Repeat what you think the person said, and if all else fails use written notes.


To get the person’s attention, touch the person lightly, wave your hand, or use some other physical sign.  If an interpreter is being used, speak directly to the Deaf person rather than to the interpreter.

If the person is lip-reading, look directly at the person, speak slowly and clearly, but do not exaggerate your lip movements and especially do not shout.  Speak expressively because the person will use your facial expressions, gestures, and body movements to help understand what you are saying. 

Do not stand with a bright light behind you and keep your hands and any other objects away from your mouth when speaking.  If you are still having trouble communicating, feel free to use written notes.  Even the best lip-reader can pick up less than half the words you speak. 


When meeting someone with a severe visual impairment, identify yourself and introduce anyone else who is present.  Before trying to shake hands, say something like “shall we shake hands?” or reach for the other person’s extended hand.  When offering seating, place the person’s hand on the back or arm of the chair.

If walking from one location to another, offer your arm as a guide and alert the person to any obstacles such as steps, curbs, or low arches.  If dining, do not feel embarrassed to orientate the person as to the location of silverware or other items.  Let the person know when you are leaving.


Consider a person’s wheelchair part of the person.  It is not polite to touch or lean on the chair unless the person gives permission.  Never pat a person in a wheelchair on the head.

When talking to someone in a wheelchair or on crutches for more than a few minutes, sit or place yourself at the other person’s eye level.  Let people who use wheelchairs or crutches keep them within reach.

Make sure the meeting site is accessible, i.e., that the person can reach the location, that parking, bathrooms, and other facilities are accessible, and that there are elevators or ramps.  If you think there may be a problem, let the person know in advance so other plans can be made.

For more information about accessible language, please contact DRES at 217-333-4603