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Tips for Engaging with Different Disabilities


  • Not all disabilities are visible, such as heart disease, depression, or asthma.
  • Many people have temporary disabilities which are equally as limiting as permanent disabilities.
  • Not everyone with a disability wishes to discuss it or its limitations. Wait until you know an individual before asking personal questions.

People First Language and Disability Etiquette Resources

Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing

  • Tap someone who is deaf on the shoulder or wave your hand to get his or her attention.
  • Write notes if you don’t sign (short sentences; common words).
  • Look directly at the person while speaking and don’t obscure your mouth.
  • Try to limit gum chewing.
  • Do not accept a head nod for understanding.
  • Talk directly to the person, not the interpreter.
  • Speak in a normal speed and tone unless asked to do otherwise.
  • Avoid standing in front of a light source.
  • Do not walk between two people using sign language as you will be cutting off their conversation.
  • Try to be expressive in your body language, gestures and facial expressions.
  • For more information, please visit Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Resources.

Wheelchair Users/Mobility

  • Position yourself at the same eye level by sitting down if engaged in a long conversation with someone who uses a chair.
  • Treat the chair as part of the user’s personal space; do not touch or lean on the chair.
  • Ask before giving assistance to a wheelchair user and take “No” for an answer.
  • Feel free to use words like “run” or “walk”. Wheelchair users use these words too.
  • Be aware of architectural features which may cause difficulty for wheelchair users, such as steps or insufficiently wide doors.
  • Remember that some parking spaces are reserved for people with mobility limitations, they are not a luxury, they are a necessity.
  • Direct your comments to the individual, not their companion or care attendant.
  • Never pet, feed or otherwise distract a service animal without first obtaining permission from the owner.

Speech & Language

  • Allow time for the person to speak, as they may need more time to respond to you.
  • Avoid the urge to interrupt or complete a sentence for the person.
  • Ask for repetition if you do not understand what the person said.
  • Do not fake understanding.
  • Be aware that you may need to use a variety of communication methods such as writing notes, emailing, or technological options.
  • Be patient and encourage the person toward expression.

Learning Disability/ADHD

  • Understand that learning disabilities may impact a person’s reading, writing, math, memory, and/or information processing.
  • Realize that this is rarely visible evidence of learning disabilities.
  • Use multiple methods to deliver information.
  • Minimize environment distractions (screen savers, background noises, etc.).
  • Keep in mind that an unconventional response may be influenced by a processing difficulty which affects social interaction.

Blindness & Visual Impairment

  • Understand that legally blind people may have some vision.
  • Provide very explicit and specific directions if asked. Avoid using such terms as “over there” or “turn this way”.
  • Never pet, feed or otherwise distract a service animal without first getting permission from the owner.
  • Provide class information in accessible, electronic formats to support the individual in using their technology to speak content aloud.
  • Feel free to use words like “see” and “look”.
  • Offer your arm/elbow when leading someone who is blind.
  • Place the person’s hand on the side or back of the chair when seating them.

Chronic or Acute Health

Examples: Cancer, Asthma, Emphysema, Diabetes, HIV/AIDS, Sickle Cell

  • Understand that each person has unique set of symptoms and treatments.
  • Accept that many health conditions are often invisible to others.
  • Never define the person by the condition. For example, someone should be referred to as “the girl who has cancer” not “the cancer girl”.
  • Do not treat the person as if they are contagious.


Examples: Cerebral Palsy, Seizures, MS, Tourette, Muscular Dystrophy, TBI (traumatic brain injury)

  • Know that some of these conditions will have symptoms that look like mobility issues, others may have similar effects as learning disabilities.
  • Understand that someone may look like they have no disability.


  • Understand that social skills may be impaired.
  • Be sensitive to emotional stress or triggers.
  • Be patient.
  • Set clear boundaries for people repeatedly interacting with you. For example, “Thanks Bob for stopping by. If you want to chat, you need to make an appointment first”.


  • Be very clear and specific in your language. Sarcasm and subtle humor is often missed.
  • Present instructions in a clear, easy to understand way.
  • Present oral information at a measured pace, using pauses as appropriate to encourage understanding.
  • Offer cues to help with transitions like “we have 5 minutes left until our meeting is done”.
    Reinforce information in multiple formats.
  • Employ modeling, rehearsing and role-playing to help students learn appropriate interactions.
  • Keep in mind that an unconventional response may be influenced by a cognitive difficulty which affects social interaction.

In Case of Emergency

  • Be aware of a person with a disability in emergency situations. It may be necessary to alert someone who is deaf to a fire alarm or lead someone who is blind out of a building.
  • Stay calm. Do your best to keep yourself and others safe.
  • Remember that people with disabilities are not helpless. Offer help, but only give it when accepted or requested.
  • Use first aid and other emergency responses according to your training.
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