The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 drew attention to the societal barriers and biases that excluded and segregated people with disabilities. For the first time in the history of the United States, this exclusion became illegal as it was recognized by Congress as discrimination and a basic issue of civil rights.[1] The ADA addressed a host of issues ranging from architectural, accessibility and communication barriers to employment discrimination. While much progress has been made, eliminating stereotypes and prejudice against people with disabilities continues today.

Language shapes ideas, perceptions, and beliefs. “People first” language emphasizes the person, not the disability. Just as certain words and phrases with negative and devaluing connotations, such as “cripple” or “deaf and dumb” have been replaced with more respectful terminology, “people first” language shifts our thinking. The disability is no longer the primary, defining characteristic of the individual, nor is it a label. Other shifts in language that help to change attitudes include phrases such as “he uses a wheelchair” instead of “he’s wheelchair-bound” or “he’s confined to a wheelchair.” Words matter, and using “people first” language changes the way we view people and even how people view themselves.

In addition, practicing disability etiquette helps people with disabilities feel more welcome. The Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association’s publication, Disability Etiquette: Tips on Interacting with People with Disabilities is an excellent resource. Some general tips include the following:

  • Ask before helping. The individual may not need or want assistance. Don’t make assumptions.
  • Always speak directly to the person, not to an attendant, family member, or interpreter.
  • Be sensitive about physical contact and respect the individual’s personal space. Personal space includes wheelchairs and other mobility aids.
  • Don’t ever pet service animals unless given permission.
  • Respect a person’s choice of language or terminology.

Remember that a disability is what someone has, not what someone is. The rules of etiquette and good manners when interacting with people with disabilities are generally the same as the rules for good etiquette.