Expert Tips: Persons with Disabilities

Get tips from David J. Thomas, Ph.D., a professor and expert in how we approach and include a person or persons with a disability.

Athletes with disabilities on the basketball court

Persons with disabilities are an important and active part of so many different environments, but one British study found that 60 percent of students with disabilities report being bullied regularly compared with 25 percent of all students.1 We know that putting an end to bullying starts on #Day1 and with a better understanding of diverse communities. We asked professor and expert David J. Thomas, Ph.D., to share several helpful tips on how communities can be more inclusive of persons with disabilities.

Disability Etiquette

It is most important to remember that people with disabilities are just that; people first who happen to have disabilities. The disability community advocates for the use of “person first” language in most cases. When using “person first” language, the person precedes the disability. Try to use “person first” language or respect the wishes of the person if he or she indicates a preference for a different form of reference.

Usually Preferred Usually Not Preferred
Person with a disability Disabled person
Person who uses a wheelchair Wheelchair bound person
Person with an emotional disability Emotionally disabled person
Person with a seizure disorde Epileptic person
Person with ADHD Hyperactive person
Deaf or hard of hearing person Person with a hearing impairment or Hearing impaired person
Blind person Person with a visual impairment or Person who is blind

When Talking with a Person with a Disability:

  • Offer help, then wait until it is accepted before you give it. If a person with a disability asks for help and you want to provide assistance, but don’t know how, ask the person to tell you the best way of providing the needed assistance.
  • If a person with a disability feels she/he can do something but you cannot understand how (e.g. performing certain job requirements, tasks, white water rafting), ask the person to explain.
  • Accept the fact that a disability exists. Not acknowledging a disability is similar to ignoring someone’s sex, height or race. But to ask personal questions about the disability would be inappropriate until a closer relationship develops in which personal questions are more naturally asked. You should never initiate the conversation about specifics of a person’s impairment; it is the person’s right when, how and to what extent they disclose their disability.
  • Speak directly to the person with a disability (including a person who is Deaf), not to their companion or interpreter.
  • Do not assume that a lack of a response indicates rudeness or a lack of understanding. In some cases a person with a disability may seem to react to situations in an unconventional manner or appear to be ignoring you. Consider that the individual may be hard of hearing or have a processing impairment which may affect social or motor skills.

When Speaking to Someone who uses a Wheelchair:

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  • Do not hold on to a person’s wheelchair. It is part of that person’s body space. Hanging on or leaning on the wheelchair is similar to leaning on a person sitting in any chair.
  • Do not be oversensitive about using words like “walking” or “running.” People using wheelchairs use the same words.
  • If conversation proceeds for more than a few minutes and it is possible to do so, consider sitting down in order to share eye level. It is uncomfortable for a seated person to look straight up for a long period of time and it creates a uncomfortable power differential.

When Speaking to a Blind Person:

  • If you see a blind person in a dangerous situation (about to walk into a wall or piece of furniture), speak out and make her/him aware of the danger.
  • Do not be sensitive about using words like “see” or “look,” etc. Blind people use them regularly.
  • Speak in a clear, normal manner. Do not exaggerate or raise your voice. Remember that the person is blind, not necessarily hard of hearing.

When Speaking with a Deaf or Hard of Hearing Person:

  • Speak clearly and distinctly, but do not exaggerate your words. Use normal speech unless asked to slow down.
  • Provide a clear view of your mouth. Waving your hands or holding something in front of your lip, thus hiding them, makes speech reading impossible.
  • Use normal tone unless you are asked to raise your voice. Shouting will not help.
  • Speak directly to the person, instead of from the side or back of the person. Also, make sure the Deaf or hard of hearing person is looking at you before you begin to speak.  It is acceptable to touch a Deaf or hard of hearing person in order to get their attention; this is expected and a normal part of conversation for them.
  • Speak expressively, and keep good eye contact. Deaf or hard of hearing people cannot hear subtle changes in tone which may indicate sarcasm or seriousness. Many will rely on your facial expressions, gestures, and body language to understand what you are saying.
  • If you are having trouble understanding a person’s speech, feel free to ask her/him to repeat. If that does not work, then use paper and pen. Most people will not be offended.
  • Remember, communication is your goal. The method is less important.
  • If you know any ASL, try using it. If the deaf person you are communicating with finds it a problem, the person will let you know. Usually your attempts will be appreciated and supported.
  • When talking with a Deaf or hard of hearing person, try not to stand in front of a light source (e.g. a window). The Deaf or hard of hearing person will find it hard to see your face, which will be silhouetted in the light.
  • Do not assume that the Deaf or hard of hearing person really understands you if she/he nods her/his head “yes.” This is often an automatic reaction. If you want to make certain that the person understood, ask her/him (in a tactful way) to repeat or explain what you said.

About the Expert

Portrait of David J Thomas, Ph. D.  for article about persons with disabilitiesDavid J. Thomas, Ph.D. serves as the Educational Accessibility Advisor and the ADA/504 Coordinator at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and the Higher Education and Design Principal at Independence Access Associates, LLC in Drexel Hill, PA. Dr. Thomas holds an appointment as Adjunct Assistant Professor of English at Temple University and serves on the Human Subjects Institutional Review Board (IRB) at the University of the Sciences and the Board of Directors of the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania and the Mental Health Advisory Council.

1.Source: British Journal of Learning Support, 2008.

Featured Photo Credit: Members from Coast Guard Sector St. Petersburg, Fla., compete against members of the Orlando Magic Wheels-Championship Team in the Gulf Coast Invitational Wheelchair Basketball Tournament in St. Petersburg, Saturday, March 21, 2015. Sector personnel strapped into sports-designed wheelchairs and raised awareness for people living with disabilities in the community. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Ashley J. Johnson)

The views or experiences expressed are solely those of the contributor or interview subject and do not represent the views of the Tyler Clementi Foundation, its staff or board. If you have any questions or concerns regarding the material, please contact the Tyler Clementi Foundation, and we appreciate your support and commitment to end bullying starting on #Day1.