Etiquette for Working With Students With Disabilities

Social interaction is a cornerstone of the modern college experience. Postsecondary students encounter a variety of different people while they are in school, and while a courteous, respectful manner is encouraged in all social circles, this article specifically explores etiquette guidelines for interacting with students with disabilities.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.” The ADA also notes that the term usually refers to people who currently live with a disability, but the status may also apply to those with a history of impairment who are not currently living with a disability, as well as individuals who are incorrectly perceived as disabled. General categories of disability include deafness or hearing loss, blindness or vision impairment, wheelchair use or limited mobility, cognitive (intellectual) limitations, speech disabilities, and hidden disabilities. Utah State University’s Center for Persons with Disabilities estimates that roughly 49 million Americans (or one in five) are living with a disability, and according to data from the National Center of Education Statistics (NCES), around 11% of college students identify as disabled.

Regardless of their specific status, every student with a disability is entitled to the same level of inclusion, course participation, and respect as their peers.

Today’s academic experts stress the importance of practicing and promoting disability etiquette within all education settings, and of providing all necessary classroom accommodations for students with disabilities. Let’s begin with a few general guidelines for engaging and interacting with people with disabilities in a courteous, thoughtful manner.


A Student’s Guide to Disability Etiquette


When introduced to someone with a disability, a non-disabled individual may react to this person’s appearance or affected speech. These reactions are usually somewhat reflexive, but for the sake of inclusion it is important to refrain from looks, gestures, or statements that will make the individual feel uncomfortable.

  • Always be patient and considerate of individuals whose disabilities require them to move or speak at a relatively slow rate.
  • Make full eye contact when talking with someone who is physically disabled and avoid prolonged staring.
  • When meeting someone who is deaf or appears to have a cognitive or speech disability, be sure to address this person clearly and maintain a normal tone of voice.
  • Always be mindful of doors, stairs, and other everyday features that may impede someone who uses a wheelchair or has other physical limitations. Offer assistance if a person with disabilities appears to be struggling, but also be respectful if he or she prefers to be independent and declines the offer.

Person First Language

Disability advocates emphasize the importance of respectful terminology. Proper etiquette states that referring to someone as a “person with a disability” is more preferable than calling them a “disabled person.” This can also be applied to specific disabilities; for instance, “person who is blind” is more respectful than “blind person.” Putting the “person first” identifies them as a fellow human, rather than someone defined by a disability. Also, beware of terms like “person who suffers from blindness,” “accident victim,” and other labels that depict someone as weak and helpless.

The disability section of the University of Northern Iowa’s Office of Compliance and Equity Management also notes that people should avoid apologizing for using “gotta run,” “see you later,” or other expressions that inadvertently relate to certain disabilities. “These expressions are part of everyday language,” the author notes, “and it is likely the apology will be more offensive than the expression.”

Etiquette for Specific Disabilities

Wheelchair Users & Mobility Device Users

In an article for Challenge Magazine, Ric Garren highlights the importance of interacting with wheelchair and mobility device users without drawing undue attention to their disability. Offer a friendly handshake at the outset of your interaction and speak to the person directly. If possible, take a seat near someone in a wheelchair in order to match their eye level. Do not assume that these people need assistance; many of them are perfectly adept at moving around on their own. The United Spinal Association also warns to never touch someone’s wheelchair unless invited to do so because the chair is part of that individual’s personal space.

Deafness & Hearing Loss

Establishing communication boundaries is the first step towards a positive interaction with a person who is deaf or has hearing loss. Most of these people have some level of hearing, so standard vocalizing may suffice. For many people who were born deaf, American Sign Language (ASL) is the first language they learn, followed by English; consequently, they may struggle speaking or writing in English. Many people who are deaf or hard of hearing practice lip-reading during conversations with others who are not fluent in ASL. Although this is a useful skill, experts estimate lip-reading is only effective up to 50% of the time. Lip-reading can also be overwhelming after a long period of time, especially in a group setting. Anyone who is unsure about how to best communicate with a deaf or hard of hearing individual should begin by asking them about their personal preferences.

Blindness & Visual Impairment

Many people will limit their use of descriptive language when conversing with a blind or visually impaired person. However, the American Foundation for the Blind notes that vision-related words like “see” and “look” are part of the common vernacular, and should be used freely without worrying that a person who is blind or visually impaired will take offense. “Making reference to colors, patterns, designs, and shapes” is also encouraged. If an individual uses a seeing-eye dog in order to get around, never pet, feed, or otherwise interact with the animal without the owner’s consent.

The AFB also discusses how you can be a “sighted guide” for people with limited vision. If someone who is blind or visually impaired requests assistance, their companion should offer them an elbow by brushing their hand against the individual’s hand. Keep a reasonable pace while walking, and feel free to alert your companion about doors, escalators, steep inclines, and other features of the path ahead that may pose danger. Never break physical contact with someone who has asked for a sighted guide until reaching your final destination.

Speech Disabilities

A common misconception about people with speech disabilities is that they must also have a cognitive disability. However, many people with affected speech do not have any sort of intellectual limitation and are able to understand normal conversations. When they speak, refrain from correcting their language or grammar and avoid “interpreting” them for others. Exercise patience when listening and always be clear if anything the person says is not fully understood. If possible, rephrase questions in order to allow them to give one-word answers.

Cognitive Disabilities

Cognitive disabilities range from highly impactful to barely noticeable in everyday life. Like other disabilities, the key to effective interaction is establishing parameters for communication. Some people with cognitive disabilities struggle in loud or crowded areas, and may prefer quieter spots. Others have mobility limitations (which may or may not be related to their cognitive disability) and enjoy activities with minimal physical activity. Speak directly to these people and make eye contact at all times to ensure that they understand what is being said. Offer help with tasks that may be difficult for them, but do not assume they want or need help.

Hidden Disabilities

Some individuals have disabilities that are not readily apparent at first glance. Hidden disabilities may refer to chronic medical conditions, diseases, or vision or hearing impairments that do not require a device. Some mental health issues, such as autism and attention deficit disorder, also fall under this umbrella. It helps to follow a simple guideline regarding all hidden disabilities: be cautious when interpreting unusual gestures and tics, as these actions might be the only symptoms of an individual’s disability. For example, diabetes and other chronic illnesses can cause people to slur their speech and stumble when they walk, giving them an intoxicated appearance. Avoid questions like “what’s wrong?” or “are you OK?” until you know more about their disability.

A Guide for Accommodating Students with Disabilities

School faculty should always strive to help and accommodate students with disabilities as much as possible. Below, we have covered a few strategies and techniques that professors can use to help everyone feel involved and engaged in class.

Universal Design of Instruction

Most academic experts agree that Universal Design of Instruction (UDI) is a best-practice method for encouraging discussion and participation among all people in a classroom. The principles of UDI call for instructors to move beyond stereotypes and basic descriptors. Sheryl Burgstahler, PhD., of the University of Washington notes that disability is only one of the factors that collectively defines an individual. “One person could be five feet four inches tall, female, forty years old, a poor reader, and deaf,” she writes. “All of these characteristics, including her deafness, should be considered when developing a product or environment she and others might use.”

Some students with disabilities require specific accommodations in order to learn and participate in class. Effective accommodations serve the intended individual(s) without detracting from the overall course. Instructors should inform their students about the availability of accommodations early in the course (on the first day, if possible) and invite students with disabilities to make the necessary arrangements with them. Early intervention will help build a reasonable education plan for the entire semester or quarter, as well as any future classes the instructor and student may share.

Available accommodations for students with disabilities

Presentation – Clear presentation helps students optimally process course instructions and lecture materials.

Response – These accommodations allow students to perform required tasks using alternative methods, such as giving verbal answers for a written exam.

Setting – Modifying the educational environment suits students with specific learning needs and preferences, such as studying in smaller groups or in less crowded classrooms.

Timing/Scheduling – It helps to allow for a more flexible timetable for tests, assignments and other course requirements; in some cases, this may also apply to class attendance and punctuality.

Organizational Skills – Helping students who struggle to manage time, keep appointments, and submit assignments is key for their success.

Assignment – These accommodations revise the course requirements to help students who may be unable to complete as many assignments or tests as their peers.

Curriculum – A flexible curriculum allows students to learn a different set of materials as their peers; for instance, a math student might need extra time in one area before moving on and catching up with the rest of the class.

Students who had disabilities before college will usually have a written record of services they received. This information is typically found in at least one of two places: an Individualized Education Profile (IEP), which is a personalized file created for all public school students, or a 504 Plan, which is created specifically for students with disabilities who require certain classroom accommodations. In order to foster an inclusive classroom environment, professors are encouraged to meet students with disabilities one-on-one to discuss accommodations that have and haven’t worked in the past.

Accommodation Types

The following table demonstrates some of the specific accommodations used to facilitate learning for individuals with different disabilities:

Deaf or Hearing Loss

ASL interpreters can be assigned for students who are deaf or hard of hearing, while class note-takers may be appointed to upload lectures online for all students to access. Additionally, instructors can help students with hearing impairments by offering visual-based lectures with closed captioning. Relay services are available for those looking to place a phone call to people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Blind or Visually Impaired

Instructors can offer specialized course materials for students who read Braille, as well as audio-based lectures and dictation devices designed for individuals with vision impairments. They should also offer alternative testing and schedule accommodations when appropriate, and reserve seats at the front of the classroom for students with limited vision.

Hidden Disability

Students with a chronic illness or hidden learning disability may require a more flexible attendance schedule. Additionally, instructors should allow students who require medical devices or equipment to freely bring these materials into the classroom. To accommodate larger equipment (such as oxygen tanks), the teacher may need to reserve front-row seating or order specialized desks.

Cognitive Disability

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), students with cognitive disabilities are allowed to use supplemental learning aids and devices in classrooms; the nature of these required materials should be detailed in the student’s IEP or 504 Plan, but if not, the instructor and student can arrange for accommodations through the school’s disability services office.

Wheelchair or Mobility Device

Classrooms and labs may require spatial modifications in order to accommodate students who use wheelchairs or mobility devices. If the predetermined classroom is not accessible for students with mobility limitations, then the instructor should request a change of venue for the course.

Speech Disability

Generally, students with speech disabilities require fewer accommodations than students with other types of disabilities. However, instructors may need to make alternative arrangements for certain course components, such as oral exams or class presentations.

Instructors should monitor and address any accommodations made for students to ensure the modifications are working, and that all students are able to learn without undue hindrances. One way to prevent potential problems is to write a syllabus detailing the requirements for all readings, assignments, projects, and exams. Tell students to carefully review the syllabus and encourage them to arrange a meeting if they foresee a need for any special accommodations.

Many students with disabilities are assigned 504 counselors once they arrive on campus. Instructors should make contact with these officials, and any other student-appointed disability specialists or advocates, to learn about their student’s specific limitations and to create a workable course schedule for the individual.

Much like students, professors and faculty members should always exercise patience when instructing students with disabilities. By clearly identifying course objectives in a detailed syllabus and fostering a respectful classroom environment, teachers can ensure a positive, inclusive experience for students with disabilities and their non-disabled peers.

Additional Resources

For more information on inclusion strategies and techniques for students with disabilities, please consult the following online resources:

The National Inclusion Project: Founded in 2003, the NIP seeks innovative strategies for creating an inclusive environment for students with disabilities at all academic levels. The Association on Higher Education and Disability is a professional organization dedicated to assisting postsecondary students with disabilities, and helping them explore post-graduation employment opportunities.

PHD(isabled): This blog covers the various challenges faced by graduate-level students with disabilities and chronic illnesses.

‘College Programs for Students with Disabilities are ‘Changing Culture’: This post from the U.S. Department of Education’s official blog looks at the various social impacts of disability education nationwide.

Disability Scoop: This overarching site covers the latest trends in education, employment, and everyday life for individuals with disabilities.