Working Together: Ensuring People with Disabilities Feel Welcome and Included in the Workplace
Learn how to communicate and interact with people with disabilities in a respectful way.
Through all phases of employment, a basic understanding of “disability etiquette” is essential. Disability etiquette means respectful ways to communicate with and about people with disabilities.
To ensure a disability-inclusive workplace culture, employees need to understand the basics and have the opportunity to learn and refresh their knowledge. This training matters when employees interact with coworkers, candidates and customers.
Tip: Always rely on common sense to guide your interactions with people with disabilities; behave in the same way with people with disabilities that you would with anyone else.
This page offers some general guidelines and best practices for interacting with people with disabilities in the workplace. These are basic recommendations and some suggested etiquette. Use your best judgment and common sense, and consider the personal preferences of the person with whom you are interacting.
- Introduce yourself. When meeting a person with a disability, act in the same manner as you would with a person without a disability. For example, if you would typically offer to shake hands, do so with the person with a disability as well. People with limited hand use or who have artificial limbs can usually shake hands, with the right or left hand, or they will often present an alternative, such as a fist bump or a friendly nod. Do not worry too much about the formality of the greeting.
- Speak directly to the person. Some people with disabilities may use an interpreter, attendant or other support professional. Look at and speak directly to the person with a disability, not the interpreter, attendant or other person that may be assisting them.
- Use common sense. Treat adults as adults. If meeting a person with a disability for the first time, treat them with the same level of formality as you would anyone else. For example, if you typically would not address someone by their first name until you get to know them better, do the same with a person with a disability.
- Avoid intrusive questions. Do not ask questions about a person’s disability unless it is brought up by the person. This is especially important in the context of job interviews. Disability nondiscrimination laws generally prohibit asking disability-related or medical questions, except in certain circumstances.
- Focus on skills. Like with any other candidate or employee, when interviewing or working with people with disabilities, the focus should be on their skills, talents and expertise, not on their disability.
- Question your assumptions. Presume competence as you would do for other employees. Avoid making assumptions about the abilities of candidates or employees with disabilities. Lowering expectations can create unnecessary barriers to success for people with disabilities. This is particularly true for people with disabilities advancing in their career.
- Respect identity preferences. Use of person-first or identify-first language is equally appropriate depending on personal preference. When in doubt, ask the person which they would prefer. Remember that people may feel strongly about their language choices, often for very personal reasons. Respect the language choices of others in and outside of the workplace.
- Be mindful about the language you use. Avoid euphemisms for disability/disabled, such as “differently abled” or “special needs." Do not use words or phrases such as “handicapped,” “the disabled,” “wheelchair bound,” “victim of” or “suffers from” when describing a person's disability. These words and phrases are offensive to many people with disabilities.
- Ask first when offering assistance. Before providing assistance, always ask the person if they would like assistance and how you can help. Do not insist on helping if the person does not want it, and do not take it personally if the person declines your offer. You also should not touch a person’s adaptive equipment (i.e., wheelchair, cane, crutches) or service animal unless specifically asked to do so.
- Do not be afraid to talk. When working with a person with a disability, do not hesitate to engage them in conversation about the work, to ask questions or to address an issue if one arises. Avoiding discussions because you are worried you might do or say something wrong will not help employees do their best work.
- Make accessibility a priority. Accessibility is a vital part of ensuring people with disabilities feel welcome and fully included in the workplace. This includes not only physical accessibility, but also accessibility of information and communication technology, such as virtual meeting platforms. Adapt an “access for all” mindset to prevent unintentional exclusion of employees with disabilities. Physical accessibility is essential for everyone’s participation in onsite events, as is digital accessibility for online training and meetings.
- Do not be afraid to make a mistake. Be yourself. If you make a mistake, apologize and ask if there is a better way to communicate or interact. Concern over interacting appropriately with people with disabilities can prevent you from developing strong working relationships and can isolate the person.
There are a number of resources that can help employers educate their workers about creating a disability-inclusive work environment. These include disability etiquette information from the Job Accommodation Network, as well as the online training, Disability Awareness to Increase Your Comfort, Confidence and Competence. Local disability organizations or service providers, including Centers for Independent Living, are also often available to provide in-person training.