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How to write and speak about people with developmental disabilities

Think before you speak
• When talking with a person with a disability, speak directly to that person rather than through a companion, aide or sign language interpreter.

• Making small talk with a person who has any type of disability is great, just talk with him/her as you would with anyone else.

Be sensitive about physical contact
• Some people with disabilities depend on their arms for support.

• Grabbing their arms, even if your intention was to assist, could knock him/her off balance.

• Avoid patting a person on the head or touching his/her wheelchair, scooter or cane. Some people with disabilities consider their equipment part of their personal space, which is an extension of their bodies.

• RESPECT any type of person’s personal space.

• DO NOT lean on, hang from or hang your coat or bag on a person’s wheelchair. These things are similar to hanging or leaning on someone’s body and many people who use a wheelchair find this to be frustrating and disrespectful.

Ask before you help
• Just because a person is disabled, DO NOT assume that he/she needs help.

• Adults with disabilities want to be treated as independent people, and most can be as independent as any other able-bodied person.

• Offer assistance, but don’t be offended when the person says, “No.”

• If he/she wants assistance, ask how, and let them tell you exactly what they need.

People first language
• Use “people-first language.”

• Refer to persons or people with intellectual disabilities, rather than “intellectually disabled.”

• NOT the Deaf, but people who are Deaf (or hearing impaired).

• NOT the visually impaired, but people who are visually impaired.

• NOT the disabled, but people with disabilities or people who are disabled.

• NOT “suffering from” Muscular Dystrophy or Cerebral palsy, but “person with” Muscular Dystrophy or Cerebral palsy.

Positive language empowers
• Use words that stress equality and active participation.

• Avoid language that implies victimization or is patronizing.

• People have intellectual disabilities, rather than are “suffering from” “afflicted with” or a “victim of” intellectual disabilities.

• A person is physically challenged, disabled or handicapped, rather than “crippled.”

• A person “uses a wheelchair” or is a “wheelchair user” rather than is “confined” or “restricted to” to a wheelchair.

• “Down syndrome” has replaced “Down’s Syndrome” and “mongoloid.”

Affirmative Phrases

Person with an intellectual, cognitive or developmental disability

Person who is blind, visually impaired

Person who is hard of hearing

Person who uses a wheelchair

Person with a physical disability

Person with Cerebral palsy

Person who has epilepsy, person with a seizure disorder

Unable to speak, uses synthetic speech

Negative Phrases

retarded, mentally defective

the blind

suffers a hearing loss

confined, restricted to a wheelchair

crippled, lame, deformed

CP victim


dumb, mute

Tips for communicating with people who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing
• There is a range of communication preferences and styles among people with hearing loss. People with hearing impairments will inform you what works best for them.

• Face them the whole time you are speaking. Eye contact is very important.

• An expressive and mobile facial expression gives more clues than a passive one.

• Speak directly to the person, NOT their interpreter.

• Speak clearly. Most people who are hard of hearing count on watching people’s lips as they speak to help them understand.

• If you do not have a text telephone or teletypewriter (TTY), which is also known as a TDD, dial 711 to reach the national telecommunications relay service.

• If you receive a relay call, the operator will identify it as such. Please DO NOT hang up; for example this is the way that people who are deaf are able to place an order for pizza or call a store to find out their hours.

Tips for communicating with individuals with people who have speech impairments
• Speak in a normal tone of voice.

• Verbally give the person information that is visually obvious to individuals who can see.

• NEVER distract or touch a service dog without first asking the owner.

• When conversing in a group, remember to identify yourself and the person that you are speaking to.

Tips for communicating with people who have mobility impairments
• If possible, put yourself at the wheelchair users’ eye level. Stand back a few feet from that person or get a chair to sit on, while talking with the person.

• If you telephone the person, let it ring as long as necessary to allow extra time for the person to reach the telephone.

Bibliography Sources

All Walks of Life-Home of STOP the violence to People with Disabilities. Ten Commandments of Etiquette for Communicating with People with Disabilities. Information for this fact sheet came from three sources: 1) The President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, 2) Guidelines to Reporting and Writing About People with Disabilities, produced by the Media Project, Research and Training Center on Independent Living, 4089 Dole, Univ. of Kansas, Lawrence, KS 66045 and 3) Ten Commandments of Etiquette for People with Disabilities, National Center for Access Unlimited, 155 North Wacker Drive, Suite 315, Chicago, IL 60606.

Disability in Action

Communicating with and About People with Disabilities

Fairfield University: Guide for Working with Individuals with Disabilities
Fairfield University, 1073 North Benson Road, Connecticut 06824

About Intellectual Disabilities –Language Guide
Created by the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation for the benefit of Persons with Intellectual Disabilities.

Disability Etiquette: A Final Word

Western New York 1219 North Forest Road | P.O. Box 9033 | Williamsville, New York 14231 | Phone: 716.817.7400 | Toll Free NY 1.888.7PEOPLE | Fax: 716.634.3889

Rochester 1860 Buffalo Road | Rochester, NY 14624 | Phone 585.441.9300 | Fax 585.441.9398

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