Disability Sensitivity 



People aren't always sure about how to communicate with someone who has a disability.
They worry about talking or acting in a way that is offensive...

Remember that a person with a disability is a person with feelings just like you. Treat him or her as you would want to be treated. Let common sense and friendship break down any barriers you may encounter. 

Think about these Ten Commandments of Communicating with a Person with Disabilities as you get to know the person as an individual:

  • Speak directly to the person rather than through a companion or sign language interpreter.
  • Offer to shake hands when introduced. People with limited hand use or an artificial limb can usually shake hands; offering the left hand is an acceptable greeting.
  • Always identify yourself and others who may be with you when meeting someone with a visual disability. When conversing in a group, remember to identify the person to whom you are speaking.
  • If you offer assistance, wait until the offer is accepted. Then listen or ask for instructions.
  • Treat adults as adults. Address people with disabilities by their first names only when extending that same familiarity to all others. Never patronize people in wheelchairs by patting them on the head or shoulder.
  • Do not lean against or hang on someone's wheelchair. Bear in mind that people with disabilities treat their chairs as extensions of their bodies. And so do people with guide dogs and help dogs. Never distract a work animal from their job without the owner's permission.
  • Listen attentively when talking with people who have difficulty speaking and wait for them to finish. If necessary, ask short questions that require short answers, or a nod of the head. Never pretend to understand; instead repeat what you understood and allow the person to respond.
  • Place yourself at eye level when speaking with someone in a wheelchair or on crutches.
  • Tap a person who has a hearing disability on the shoulder or wave your hand to get his or her attention. Look directly at the person and speak clearly, slowly, and expressively to establish if the person can read your lips.
  • Relax. Don't be embarrassed if you use common expressions such as "See you later" or "Did you hear about this?" that seem to relate to a person's  vision or hearing disability. Just continue chatting - like you would do with any friend.

Source: National Center for Access Unlimited


​It is estimated that at least 25 million persons have mobility problems. Of these, approximately 500,000 use wheelchairs. People use wheelchairs as a result of a variety of disabilities, including spinal cord injury, Multiple Sclerosis, Muscular Dystrophy, Arthritis, Cerebral Palsy and Polio. Wheelchairs provide mobility for persons with paralysis, muscle weakness, lack of coordination, nerve damage, and/or stiffness of joints. Wheelchairs come in many sizes and shapes which are adapted to the lifestyle of the user. They range from custom-designed models for sports activities to basic utility models for use in hospitals and airports. Despite their active participation in our society, most people who use wheelchairs encounter attitudinal barriers which affect their lives on a daily basis. 

What Can You Do? 

Do not automatically hold on to a person’s wheelchair. It is part of the person’s body space. Hanging or leaning on the chair is similar to hanging or leaning on a person sitting in any chair. It is often fine if you are friends, but inappropriate if you are strangers. 

Offer assistance if you wish, but do not insist. If a person needs help (s)he will accept your offer and tell you exactly what will be helpful. If you force assistance it can sometimes be unsafe as when you grab the chair and the person using it loses his/her balance. 

Talk directly to the person using the wheelchair, not to a third party. The person is not helpless or unable to talk. 

Don’t be sensitive about using words like “walking” or “running.” People using wheelchairs use the same words.Be alert to the existence of architectural barriers in your office and when selecting a restaurant, home, theatre or other facility, to which you want to visit with a person who uses a wheelchair.

If conversation proceeds more than a few minutes and it is possible to do so, consider sitting down in order to share eye level. It is uncomfortable for a seated person to look straight up for a long period. 

Don’t park your car in an accessible parking place. These places are reserved out of necessity, not convenience. The space is wider than usual in order to get wheelchairs in and out of the car and is close to the entrance for those who cannot push far. 

When your dept., church, civic group or organization sponsors a program, be sure people with disabilities are included in the planning and presentation. 

When children ask about wheelchairs and people who use them, answer them in a matter-of-fact manner. Wheelchairs, bicycles and skates share a lot in common. 

When you hear someone use the term “cripple,” politely but firmly indicate your preference for the words “person who has a disability.”

If you wish to contribute to an organization that uses a “pity” or “sympathy” campaign, enclose a note with your check saying that the cause may be good, but the method of public appeal is demeaning to citizens with disabilities. Voice your disapproval of the “poor cripple” image. Include people with disabilities in photos used in promotional material. When people with disabilities are presented in the media as competent, or “like other people,” write a note of support to the producer or publisher. 

Make sure meeting places are architecturally accessible (with ramps, modified bathrooms, wide doors, low telephones, etc.) so that people with disabilities can be equal participants. 

Encourage your community to put “curb cuts” in sidewalks. These inexpensive built-in ramps enable wheelchair users to get from place to place independently. 

Include people who use wheelchairs on community task forces (transportation, building, zoning) so that your town will meet the needs of all citizens. 

Make it a point to try to reduce barriers in your physical surroundings. Often these barriers have been created by architects, engineers and builders who were unaware. A simple “How could someone using a wheelchair get in here?” will help identify any barriers.   

Taken from the handbook entitled “Free Wheeling” published by the Regional Rehabilitation Research Institute on Attitudinal, Legal and Leisure Barriers, Washington, D.C.



The Bottom-line

Having a disability is as hard as any other challenge an able bodied or disabled person might face, it is just a challenge that not that many people face. Having a disability does not necessarily make you worse off, it just means you have to do things differently. Lastly, having a disability is part of a social and cultural identity. Here are some tips for what to do if you think a person with a disability wants help.

1. Treat them like you would anyone else. People with disabilities are just people, and do not deserve or need to be coddled or treated differently.

2. Do not treat their disability as something to be ashamed of. This is dehumanizing, and intentional or unintentional, it is "ableism"      (discrimination against people with disabilities).

3. Be there for them like any other friend.

4. Stand up for their rights. If someone is rude or mean because of the disability, stand up for them like you would for anyone else. 5. Treat them the way you would treat any other human being. Laugh, cry or be friends with them like the way you would any other friend.

6. Treat them with the respect we all deserve.

7. Ask if they need help before helping. We all have the right to be independent.