Disabilities are very common in the workplace. And there are many different kinds of disabilities, including visible and invisible ones. You may say something to a co-worker that’s rude or hurtful without meaning to. This is true even if you mean well or if you have a difference or disability yourself.
Use these disability etiquette tips to respect people’s differences and help make your workplace more inclusive.
1. Focus on the person, not the disability.
No two disabilities are the same. And no two people experience the same disability in the same way. That’s why it’s important to avoid making assumptions about what people can or can’t do.
Focus on the person, not the disability. Don’t make assumptions, like that your co-worker with dyslexia can’t read the handouts. Each person is unique. Get to know them as individuals, and, over time, you’ll learn their strengths and preferences.
If you’re on the hiring team, focus on the essential functions of the job. Put aside any preconceived ideas you have about what the person is or isn’t able to do. When interviewing candidates with disabilities, ask about their skills and experience, just like you would with anyone else.
2. Think about the language you use.
In general, it’s best to use language that puts the person first instead of their disability. For example:
- Say “person with a disability,” not “disabled person”
- Say “person with Down syndrome” rather than “a Down’s person”
- Say “person who uses a wheelchair” instead of “wheelchair-bound person”
But keep in mind that some people prefer disability- or identity-first language. For example, they may prefer to say “I’m autistic” rather than “I’m a person with autism.” Respect and use their preferred terms.
Also, avoid negative or victimizing language. Say that someone “has a disability,” not that they “suffer from” or “are afflicted with” it.
3. Ask before you help.
Don’t assume that just because someone has a disability, they need your help.
If someone with a disability seems like they could use help, it’s OK to offer it and then wait for a response. But make sure you have the go-ahead before you act. And don’t be surprised if the answer is “no.”
For example, when walking with a person who is blind or has low vision, you can offer your arm or elbow. But don’t take their arm or touch their body or assistive device unless they ask you to.
If a person accepts your offer, ask them what they need or how you can help. Once again, don’t assume you know the best way to help.
4. Think broadly about people’s personal space.
Mobility devices, such as wheelchairs or canes, are personal space for people with disabilities. Don’t move or touch these personal items. If it’s in your way, ask the person to move it. Or ask if you can move it and let the person know where it’s been placed.
The same goes for service animals. They’re always working. Don’t touch or pet them without permission.
5. Address the person directly, and ask for clarification if needed.
If you’re talking to someone who has a job coach, a sign language interpreter, or some other type of support person, address the individual with a disability directly. Speak to them, not to their companion.
If the person says something you don’t understand, ask them to repeat it. Or you can repeat what you heard and ask them to confirm you got it right. If you’re still having difficulty, you can ask the person to write their answer down.
Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification. But remember not to interrupt or to finish anyone’s sentences.
6. Don’t jump to conclusions.
Nothing erodes trust faster than making assumptions about why something isn’t going quite the way you think it should. Don’t jump to conclusions either that there is a problem or that you know why there’s a problem.
If you see a co-worker struggling, talk to them. Kindly say what you’ve noticed and ask if there’s anything you can do to support them.
7. Don’t let your fear of making a mistake limit someone else’s opportunities.
It’s OK to make mistakes. We’re all human and we’re all doing our best. But what’s important is to learn from those mistakes. If a person with a disability gives you feedback or tells you their preferences, listen. And try to remember and use that information in your next interaction.
If you make a mistake, apologize and correct the behavior. But don’t let your fear of making mistakes limit opportunities for people with disabilities.
For example, maybe a co-worker wants to invite a new person to lunch but doesn’t know how to fit a wheelchair in their car. The solution isn’t to avoid inviting the new person to lunch. The solution is to invite them to lunch and then figure out where to go and how to get there.
Disability etiquette is about respect and communication. It’s about questioning your own assumptions and treating people as individuals. Explore these resources to help your co-workers feel welcomed and included:
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About the author
About the author
James Emmett, MS is the lead workplace strategist for Understood, supporting our efforts to create more inclusive workplaces for people with disabilities.