Published On: March 11, 2024

During March, we recognize Disability Awareness Month in Indiana; nationally we recognize Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month. As both recognitions involve creating opportunities for inclusion for people of all abilities, Easterseals Crossroads is dedicated to providing services, resources and awareness for our community.

Our employment and veteran divisions at Easterseals Crossroads work with individuals who are seeking employment opportunities.

images of people interacting with others through various means

What is the definition of disability?

The CDC defines a disability as any condition of the body or mind that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities and interact with the world around them. A disability can be visible or invisible and can present physical, emotional, social and educational challenges to the person’s everyday life.

Having a disability may limit a person’s functional capacity in the areas of communication, interpersonal skills, mobility, self-care, self-direction, work skills and work tolerance.

There are many reasons why a person has a disability. It may be the result of an accident, a disease or condition, a birth defect or simply the result of getting older.

About 1 in 4 adults living in the United States have a disability (according to the CDC). It’s likely that all of us know someone who has a disability – or will develop a disability – at some point in life, including ourselves. Whether it’s a child who is on the autism spectrum or a grandparent that has a hearing impairment, disability touches us all.

As the meaning of disability evolves as society changes, we’re working alongside the disability community to change how the world defines and views disability. We realize disability does not have to be viewed as a limitation, but rather a normal part of life. We see disability as just one part of a person’s identity.

How should we refer to someone with a disability?

In general, refer to the person first and the disability second. People with disabilities are, first and foremost, people. Labeling a person equates the person with a condition and can be disrespectful and dehumanizing. Refer to the disability only when it’s relevant or necessary to the situation. It’s usually more helpful and appropriate to describe the person’s specific needs/abilities than to use the diagnosis to describe them. For example, refer to what someone may have difficulty with or need to avoid. We wouldn’t tell an employer “Leo has autism, so he can’t work at the cash register”, we would say something like “Leo struggles with communication, counting money and processing new information quickly, so he would be most successful in a stocking position.”

Take the following terms out of your vocabulary when talking about or talking to people with disabilities; never use the words below as they are disrespectful and they can make a person feel excluded from full participation.

  • handicapped
  • differently-abled
  • victim
  • stricken
  • poor or unfortunate
  • impaired
  • deficient
  • wheelchair bound

Many people who do not have a disability now will have one in the future. Others will have a family member or a friend who will become disabled. If you become disabled in your lifetime, how do you want people to describe you? If a family member or friend becomes disabled, how would you want him/her to be treated? Disability affects all people. Learn respectful language and teach others.

What are some disability awareness and etiquette guidelines?

Having a disability is a significant part of some people’s lives, but it isn’t doesn’t need to be their identity. Always use person first language. It’s not about being politically correct. It’s about giving every human being respect and value.

  • Refer to a person’s disability only when it is related to what you are talking about. For example, never ask “What’s wrong with you?”  And don’t refer to people in general or generic terms such as the girl in the wheelchair.
  • Just because someone has a disability, it doesn’t mean he/she is courageous, brave, special or superhuman. People with disabilities are the same as everyone else. It is not unusual for someone with a disability to have talents, skills and abilities.
  • When talking about people without disabilities, it is okay to say people without disabilities, but do not refer to them as normal or healthy. These terms can make people with disabilities feel as though there is something wrong with them and that they are abnormal.
  • Don’t generalize or stereotype people with disabilities such as all people with autism are good at math and really smart; or all people with Down syndrome are happy and affectionate; or all people who use wheelchairs are physically helpless; or all Deaf people are excellent workers and employees; or all people who are blind use braille.
  • Only offer assistance if it is warranted; always ask first, don’t assume someone needs help because they have a disability. Remember that different people have different preferences in accepting assistance, so make sure that you understand or ask for clarification when providing accepted assistance.

What are some general tips for interacting with people with disabilities?

When interacting with a person with a disability, relax! It’s okay to ask questions when you’re unsure of what to do.

  • Focus on the person, not the disability, and conduct your conversation as you would with anyone.
  • Be polite and respectful.
  • Shake hands when introduced. People with limited hand use or artificial limbs do shake hands.
  • Be clear and candid in your communication.
  • Use eye contact and talk directly to her person, even if she/he has an interpreter or companion.
  • Talk at eye level.
  • A wheelchair or other assistive device is part of a person’s personal body space. Do not lean on or put hands on a person’s wheelchair.
  • Service animals and guide dogs are working. Do not make eye contact, praise, talk or pet the animal as that is distracting for the animal and owner.
  • Don’t be embarrassed to use common phrases such as see you later or did you hear about that when speaking with someone who is either visually impaired or Deaf.
  • If you say the wrong thing, apologize, ask for the correct language, and move on.

Are there things that I can do or ask before a meeting or interview with a person with a disability?

  • Ask the individual if he or she requires any specific accommodations. Examples could include wheelchair access, certain lighting, a quiet place or an interpreter. If you are unsure about how to provide the accommodations, ask the individual.
  • Allow plenty of time after you ask a question as some individuals may require additional time to relay or process information.
  • Allow the individual to have an advocate or support person with him or her if it is preferred or requested.

When interacting with people with speech disabilities…

  • Listen attentively when you are talking with a person who has difficulty speaking.
  • Be patient and wait for the person to finish speaking rather than correcting the person or speaking for him or her.
  • Ask short questions that require short answers when possible.
  • Do not pretend to understand. Instead, repeat what you believe was said and allow the person to respond.
  • If an individual is having extreme difficulty answering a question, you can ask if her or she would like to respond with a written response or an alternative method.

When interacting with people with intellectual disabilities or autism

  • Direct your questions and comments directly to the individual, even if this person is accompanied by a support person or advocate.
  • Speak to the person as an adult and do not talk down in any way.
  • Offer to read written instructions out loud.
  • If you think someone did not understand your question or comment, clarify and rephrase if necessary.
  • Do not assume a flat affect or lack of eye contact means someone is not interested in what you are saying.

For more information  about national Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month on interacting with people with developmental disabilities, visit National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities.

For more information about services and resources at Easterseals Crossroads, contact us.