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University Disability Support Services|Student Educational Opportunity

Tips for Disability Awareness

Adapted from: A Desk Reference Guide for Faculty and Staff: College Students with Disabilities, Produced by Mississippi State University.

Appropriate Language

  • People with disabilities are, first and foremost, people. The Americans with Disabilities Act officially changed the terminology used to refer to people with disabilities and provided the model for describing someone with a disability: the person first and then the disability. This emphasizes the person and not the disability.
  • Do use the word "disability" when referring to someone who has a physical, mental, emotional, sensory, or learning impairment.
  • Do not use the word "handicapped". A handicap is what a person with a disability cannot do.
  • Avoid labeling individuals as victims, or "the disabled", or as names of conditions. Instead, refer to people with disabilities as "someone who has epilepsy", "a wheelchair user", etc.
  • Avoid terms such as "wheelchair bound". Wheelchairs provide access and enable individuals to get around. Instead, refer to a person who uses a wheelchair as someone with a mobility impairment or as a wheelchair user.
  • When it is appropriate to refer to an individual's disability, choose the correct terminology for the specific disability. Use terms such as quadriplegia, speech impairment, hearing impairment, or specific learning disability.


Appropriate Interaction

  • When introduced, offer to shake hands. People with limited hand use or artificial limbs can usually shake hands. It is an acceptable greeting to use the left hand for shaking.
  • Treat adults as adults. Avoid patronizing people who use wheelchairs by patting them on the shoulder or touching their head. Never place your hands on a person's wheelchair as the chair is part of the body space of the user.
  • If possible, sit down when talking to a person who uses a wheelchair so that you are at the person's eye level.
  • Speak directly to the person with a disability. Do not communicate through another person. If the person uses an interpreter, look at the person and speak to the person, not the interpreter.
  • Offer assistance with sensitivity and respect. Ask if there is something you might do to help. If the offer is declined, do not insist.
  • If you are a sighted guide for a person with a visual impairment, allow the person to take your arm at or above the elbow so that you guide rather than propel.
  • When talking with a person with a speech impairment, listen attentively, ask short questions that require short answers, avoid correcting, and repeat what you understand if you are uncertain.
  • When first meeting a person with blindness, identify yourself and any others who may be with you.


When speaking to a person with a hearing impairment, look directly at the person and speak slowly. Avoid placing your hand over your mouth when speaking. Written notes may be helpful for short conversations. 

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