Disability Etiquette

Socially acceptable behavior

The term “etiquette” refers to a set of rules — written and unwritten — governing what constitutes socially acceptable behavior under a variety of circumstances. Typically, these rules, based upon social norms, are not codified in criminal or civil law; but rather are enforced on an individual level by fear of community disapproval.

Disability etiquette“, then, is a misnomer: in contrast to simple “etiquette”, guidelines dealing specifically with how to approach people with disabilities were initially created to challenge social conventions rather than to reinforce them.

Most disability etiquette guidelines seem to be predicated on a simple dictate: “Do not assume…” They are written to address real and perceived shortcomings in how society as a whole treats people with disabilities.

These guidelines can be broken down into the several broad categories.

Do not assume

…a person with a disability either wants or requires assistance

…rejection of aid is meant as a personal affront.

…upon acceptance of your help, that you know, without being told, what service to perform.

…a person who appears to have one kind of disability also has others.

…a disabled person is dissatisfied with his/her quality of life, and is thus seeking pity.

…a person with a disability is easily offended.

…that a person who does not appear disabled, or who uses assistive devices intermittently instead of all of the time, is faking or imagining their disability. (see invisible disability)

…companions accompanying a person with a disability are there strictly to render service.

…a person with a disability will be receptive to personal questions, particularly in a public setting.

…that when a person with a disability is in a public place, that they are being escorted by a caretaker, instead of traveling alone.

Each category encompasses specific ‘rules’. For example, the last two of these would include guidelines such as: “Ask questions of the person with a disability, and not of his/her companions.” “Hand grocery or other receipts to the individual who is paying the bill.” “Only ask questions about the person’s disability if you know that person.”

People writing on specific disabilities have given rise to their own unique guidelines. Wheelchair users may, for example, include the rule, “do not grab the push handles of a person’s wheelchair without permission.” Visually impaired people often list a request to, “identify yourself when you enter a room.”

Like many other minority groups, people with disabilities do not always agree on what constitutes politically correct language. However, see the List of disability-related terms with negative connotations and people-first language.

“Disability etiquette” exists to draw attention to common assumptions and misconceptions through the provision of guidelines that contradict them. More than that, however, these guidelines are evolving to approximate social etiquette among the non-disabled, in hope that people with disabilities will be treated with “common courtesy.” (McGrattan, 2001)

Tips on Interacting with People with Disabilities