FIRST LANGUAGE: Communicating with and about People with
from the New York State Department of Health
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You notice a person who is blind and needs help. How do you make
your presence known? What assistance do you offer? You
meet someone who uses a wheelchair. Where should you stand while
talking? You have a question for a person with a
disability, who is with a friend. To whom should you address the
We all find ourselves in situations in which we don’t know what
to say or do. We may meet someone who moves or acts differently,
and wonder how we should react. When interacting with people
with disabilities, it's important to remember that they are
people first. They want to be appreciated, respected and
Recent changes in civil rights laws have helped people with
disabilities pursue employment, recreation and education
opportunities in the mainstream of community life.
As a result, attitudes toward people with disabilities have also
begun to change. This is a start toward creating a truly
integrated society; one in which people of all abilities live
and work together.
Communicating with People with Disabilities
If you offer assistance to a person with a disability, wait
until the offer is accepted and then listen to or ask for
If you are asked to assist a wheelchair user up or down a curb,
ask if the person prefers to be facing forward or backward. Hold
the push handles securely and keep the chair tilted back when
ascending or descending.
When guiding a person who has a visual impairment, walk
alongside and slightly ahead. Let the person hold your arm so
your body’s motion lets the person know what to expect. On
stairs, guide the person’s hand to the bannister or handrail.
When seating, place the person’s hand on the back of the chair
or arm. Avoid escalators and revolving doors, which may be
disorientating and dangerous. Never distract a “seeing eye” or
When speaking for a length of time to a person who uses a
wheelchair or crutches, place yourself at eye level with that
It’s not polite to talk down to that person.
When talking to a person with a disability, speak directly to
that person rather than through a companion or sign language
When introduced to a person with a disability, it is
appropriate to offer to shake hands.
A person with limited hand use or who wears an artificial limb
can usually shake hands. Shaking hands with the left hand is
also an acceptable greeting.
When meeting or speaking to someone who is visually impaired,
always identify yourself before speaking.
When in a group, remember to identify the person to whom you are
speaking, as well as yourself.
Treat adults as adults.
Address people with disabilities by their first names only after
they have given permission or when extending the same
familiarity to others. Also, never patronize people in
wheelchairs by patting them on the head or shoulder.
Avoid leaning on or hanging onto a person’s wheelchair.
It’s similar to leaning or hanging onto a person. The chair is
part of the personal body space of the person who uses it.
Listen attentively when you’re talking with a person who has
Be patient and wait for the person to finish, rather than
correcting or speaking for that person. If necessary, ask short
questions that require short answers, or a nod or shake of the
head. Don’t pretend to understand if you are having difficulty.
Instead, repeat what you understand, and allow the person to
To get the attention of a person who is deaf, tap the person
on the shoulder or wave your hand.
Look directly at the person, and speak clearly, slowly and
expressively to determine if the person can read your lips. For
those people who do read lips, place yourself in their direct
view and keep hands and food away from your mouth when speaking.
If a person has a hearing impairment, avoid shouting. Hearing
aids make sound louder not clearer.
Relax. Don’t be embarrassed if you happen to use accepted common
phrases, such as “See you later” or “Did you hear about that?,”
that seem to relate to a person’s disability.
Chances are the person will understand.
Communicating About People with
“Handicapped man confined to a wheelchair...” “A girl stricken
with cerebral palsy...”
The use of negative words can create incorrect perceptions of
people with disabilities. Such negative attitudes are often the
most difficult barriers for people with disabilities to
overcome. Even the word “handicap” is considered unacceptable by
most people with disabilities because of the word’s origin.
“Handicap” is derived from “cap in hand,” a phrase associated
When describing a person with a disability, refer to the person
first. Rather than saying or writing “blind man” or “afflicted
with blindness” refer to “a person with visual impairment or ”a
person who is blind.”
This also applies when you are describing a group of people. Try
to avoid grouping individuals together as “the mentally
retarded” or “the handicapped,” which puts the focus on their
disabilities. “People with disabilities” or “individuals who use
wheelchairs” places people first.
Use respectful and descriptive words. Examples of acceptable
descriptions include “a person who is...”, “a person with a...”
or “person who has...”
communication disorder/speech impairment;
inability to speak; and,
Try to avoid words and descriptions that have become outdated,
inappropriate and do not put the person first:
“Afflicted” is a negative term suggesting hopelessness.
“Confined to a wheelchair.” People are not imprisoned in
wheelchairs. Individuals use wheelchairs to move about.
“Crippled” implies someone who is pitiful and unable to do
“Deaf and dumb” and “deaf-mute” are outdated terms once used to
describe people who could neither hear nor speak. Many people
who are deaf or hard of hearing can speak, and many people with
speech impairments can hear.
“Gimp” once used to refer to someone who walked with a limp, is
outdated and derogatory.
“Poor” describes a lack of money or someone to be pitied.
“Retard” and “retarded” are demeaning. Certain disabilities can
make people appear awkward. This does not mean the individual
has mental retardation.
“Spastic.” People should not be ridiculed because they lack
coordination as a result of physical or neurological
“Suffering.” To say that someone suffers from a disability
implies that the disability causes constant pain. This is not
“Unfortunate” implies unlucky or unsuccessful.
“Victim” is a person sacrificed by an uncontrollable force or
person. Individuals with disabilities are not helpless victims.
For more information about people with disabilities and
wellness issues, write: New York State Department of
Health, Disability and Health Program, Empire State Plaza,
Corning Tower, Albany, New York 12237, or call (518) 474- 2018.
Adapted from "Interacting with People with Disabilities,"
Indiana Governor's Planning Council for People with
Disabilities; "The Ten Commandments for Etiquette for
Communicating with People with Disabilities," United Cerebral
Palsy; and materials from the New York State Office of Advocate
for People with Disabilities.
This publication is part of "People First," a health promotion
series for people with disabilities, their families, friends and
health care providers.
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