October is National Disability Awareness Month

The Ten Commandments of Communicating with People with Disabilities

  1. Speak directly rather than through a companion or sign language interpreter who may be present.
  1. Offer to shake hands when introduced. People with limited hand use or an artificial limb can usually shake hands. Offering the left hand is also an acceptable greeting.
  1. Always identify yourself and others who may be with you when meeting someone with a visual disability. When conversing in a group, remember to identify the person to whom you are speaking. When dining with a friend who has a visual disability, ask if you can describe what is on his/her plate.
  1. If you offer assistance, wait until the offer is accepted. Then listen or ask for instructions.
  1. Treat adults as adults. Address people with disabilities by their first names only when extending that same familiarity to all others. Never patronize people using wheelchairs by patting them on the head or shoulder.
  1. Do not lean against or hang onto someone’s wheelchair. Bear in mind that people with disabilities treat their chairs as extensions of their bodies. As do people with guide dogs or assistance dogs. Never distract a work animal from their job without the owner’s permission.
  1. Listen attentively when talking with people who have difficulty speaking and wait for them to finish. If necessary, ask short questions that require short answers, or a nod of the head. Never pretend to understand; instead repeat what you have understood and then allow the person to respond.
  1. Place yourself at eye level, whenever possible, when speaking with someone who uses a wheelchair.
  1. Tap a person who has a hearing disability on the shoulder or wave your hand to get his or her attention. Look directly at the person and speak clearly, slowly and expressively to establish if the person can read lips. If so, try to face the light source and keep hands away from your mouth when speaking. Never shout, just speak in a normal tone of voice.
  1. Relax! Don’t be embarrassed if you happen to use common expressions such as “see you later” or “did you hear about this?” that seem to relate to the person’s disability.

(Copyright 2004 by TransCen, Inc.)


When Sue Austin got a power chair 16 years ago, she felt a tremendous sense of freedom — yet others looked at her as though she had lost something. In her art, she aims to convey the spirit of wonder she feels wheeling through the world. Includes thrilling footage of an underwater wheelchair that lets her explore ocean beds, drifting through schools of fish, floating free in 360 degrees. (Filmed at TEDxWomen.)

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