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Communicating respectfully with people with disability

It is not uncommon to be uncomfortable around people with disability, particularly if you have had little exposure to disability through friends, family or work colleagues. You may be unsure of what to do, how to act, what is correct and what might offend. The most effective strategy is to be sensitive, flexible and honest.1

Communicating with people with disability

Use 'person first' language—e.g. 'person with disability'. This is generally and widely preferred as it puts the emphasis on the person, not the disability.
Some general communication tips are below. When in doubt, ask the person you are talking to about any specific preferences they may have.

  • Look at the person when addressing him or her.
  • Ask the person about the best way to communicate if you are unsure.
  • Speak directly to a person with disability, even if a person without disability accompanies him or her.
  • Address the person by their name.
  • Offer assistance if it appears necessary but wait for acceptance and instruction before proceeding.
  • If appropriate, extend your hand to shake when meeting someone.2
Say Avoid saying
Person with disability Victim, disabled person, suffers from, not normal
Person with cerebral palsy Afflicted by/with
Person with low vision Blind, cannot see
Person with a physical disability Crippled, the crippled, crippling, invalid
Person who uses a wheelchair Wheelchair bound, confined to a wheelchair
Person with a hearing impairment/hearing loss, person who is deaf Deaf and dumb, Deaf mute
Accessible parking, accessible toilets Disabled toilets, handicapped parking
Person with intellectual disability Retarded, slow, spastic, special
Person with a mental illness Schizophrenic, crazy, mad

Pulse check

  • I use everyday language when interacting with people with disability
  • I know what 'person first' language is
  • I avoid using phrases that have negative connotations such as 'suffering from disability' or 'confined to a wheelchair'
  • I know it is ok to make mistakes.3

1 Remember, the Australian Public Service Code of Conduct requires that APS employees, in connection with their employment, must treat everyone with respect and courtesy.

2Adapted from material developed by Maroondah City Council, Victoria.

3 National Disability Recruitment Coordinator, Getting to Yes Toolkit

Last reviewed: 
15 May 2018