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Disability Etiquette: The Basics

The purpose of the Discovering Diversity Series is to assist the Director, and the Pacific Islands Area Civil Rights Committee, and the Special Emphasis Program Managers to deliver information about equal opportunity, civil rights, and special emphasis issues and events. You also can discover a convenient starting point to obtain information pertaining to equal opportunity, civil rights, or special emphasis by going to the NRCS Pacific Islands Area Civil Rights website at

This website provides access to agency and departmental civil rights information as well as information specific to the Pacific Islands Area.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) prohibits discrimination in all its programs and activities on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age, disability, political beliefs, sexual orientation, or marital or family status. (Not all prohibited bases apply to all programs.) Persons with disabilities who require alternative means for communication of program information (Braille, large print, audiotape, etc.) should contact USDA’s TARGET Center at (202)720-2600 (voice and TDD).

To file a complaint of discrimination, write USDA, Director, Office of Civil Rights, Room 326-W, Whitten Building, 1400 Independence Avenue, SW, Washington, D.C. 20250-9410 or call (202)720-5964.

Terminology Tips
  • Put the person first. Say “person with a disability” rather than “disabled person”. Say “people with disabilities” rather than “the disabled”. For specific disabilities, saying “person with Tourette syndrome” or “person who has cerebral palsy” is usually a safe bet. Still, individuals do have they own preferences. If you are not sure what words to use, ask.
  • Avoid outdated terms like “handicapped” or “crippled”. Be aware that many people with disabilities dislike jargon, euphemistic terms like “physically challenged” and “differently abled”.
  • Say “wheelchair user”, rather than “confined to a wheelchair” or “wheelchair bound”. The wheelchair is what enables the person to get around and participate in society: it’s liberating, not confining.
  • With any disability, avoid negative, disempowering words, like “victim” or “sufferer”. Say “person with AIDS” instead of “AIDS victim” or “person who suffers from AIDS”.
  •   It’s okay to use idiomatic expressions when talking to people with disabilities. For example, saying, “It is good to see you” and “See you later”, to a person who is blind is completely acceptable; they use these expressions themselves all the time.
  • Many people who are Deaf communicate with sign language and consider themselves to be members of a cultural and linguistic minority group. They refer to themselves as Deaf with a capital “D”, and may be offended by the term “hearing impaired”. Others may not object to the term, but in general it is safest to refer to people who have hearing loss but who communicate in spoken language as “hard of hearing” and to people with profound hearing losses as Deaf or deaf.

You don’t have to feel awkward when dealing with a person who has a disability. Here are some basic tips for you to follow. And, if you are ever unsure about what to do or say with a person who has a disability, just ask.

Just because someone has a disability, don’t assume he/she needs help. If the setting is accessible, people with disabilities can usually get around fine. Adults with disabilities want to be treated as independent people. Offer assistance only if the person appears to need it. And if he/she does want help, ask how before you act.

Some people with disabilities depend on their arms for balance. Grabbing them (even if your intention is to assist) could knock them off balance. Avoid patting a person on the head or touching his/her wheelchair, scooter, or cane. People with disabilities consider their equipment part of their personal space.

Always speak directly to the person with a disability, not to his companion, aide, or sign language interpreter. Making small talk with a person who has a disability is great; just talk to him as you would with anyone else. Respect his privacy. If you ask about his/her disability, he may feel like you are treating him/her as a disability, not as a human being. (However, many people with disabilities are comfortable with children’s natural curiosity and do not mind if a child asks them questions.)

People with disabilities are the best judge of what they can or cannot do. Don’t make decisions for them about participating in any activity. Depending on the situation, it could be discrimination to exclude people because of a presumption about their limitations.

When people who have a disability ask for an accommodation at your workplace, it is not a complaint. It shows they feel comfortable enough to ask for what they need.