People generally want to use language that describes disability accurately and does not cause offence but are often quite unsure about this. As all disabled people are individuals, there are no hard and fast rules regarding etiquette and terminology, but there are a few things you could bear in mind.

Do not make assumptions about people or their disabilities

Do not assume you know what someone wants, how they feel, or what is best for them based on your own perceptions. Often the best way to make a disabled person comfortable is to ask for their advice.

If you have a question about what to do, how to do it, what language or terminology to use, or what assistance to offer, do not be afraid to ask. That person should be your first and best resource.

Ask before you help

Before you help someone, ask if they require assistance. In some cases, a disabled person might seem to be struggling, yet they are fine and would prefer to complete the task on their own. Follow the person’s cues and ask if you are not sure what to do. Do not be offended if someone declines your offer of assistance.

Positive language – try our exercise

The words we use when talking to or describing others can be very powerful.  Sometimes the negative words we use about disability makes us see what the person cannot do before we see their abilities.

See the person before the disability.  Having a disability is not a “problem”, it is a natural part of life – 20% of us have a disability or long term condition. It does not make a person less valuable to society.  When we interact with disabled people we should focus on their unique personal characteristics instead of defining who they are based on their disability.  The words we use have the power to build positive images about disability.

Effective Communication

We have given some hints and tips for getting this right:

The first language of people who are born deaf, or become deaf before spoken language is acquired, is normally British Sign Language, however, it should not be assumed that a deaf person can sign.

Good Practice

  • Remember to speak to the person you are meeting, rather than their interpreter.
  • If you need to catch the person’s attention, you should do so by lightly touching their shoulder or by waving your hand.
  • Interpreters should only work for half an hour before being given a break. Meetings of more than 2 hours should have 2 interpreters working.
  • At the start of any meeting you should check with the person that they have no objection to being provided with confidential information via an interpreter. If they object, an alternative should be arranged for this.
  • Where it is essential to communicate by telephone, ensure you speak clearly and any answer phone messages are kept brief.

Arranging a Meeting

  • Set up a meeting room free from background noise or with a minimum of noise.
  • Fit an induction loop, which amplifies sound where you know someone with a hearing aid will be present.
  • Make clear at the outset of a meeting that one person at a time should speak and that all comments or questions should be directed through the chair.


Lip-reading is a specialist skill that some deaf people use. You can ask people if they lip-read when you meet them. If they do, it is best to:

  • Look directly at them and speak slowly and clearly, making sure that your face can be seen.
  • Keep sentences reasonably short.
  • Use suitable facial expressions or other body language to emphasise what you are trying to convey.
  • Do not make assumptions that the person does/does not understand, clarify with the person if you are unsure, e.g. use written notes.

Good Practice

  • Identify yourself clearly, introduce anyone else who is present in the room and indicate where they are placed in relation to the person who is visually impaired.
  • Say the name of the person you are talking to when part of a group.
  • Make sure you let the person know when you have ended a conversation and want to move away.
  • Take care not to distract a person’s guide dog.

Arranging a meeting

  • Ensure that the room has good levels of light and a means of controlling glare.
  • Ensure the room is clearly signposted or that a member of staff is on hand to offer assistance.

Good Practice

  • Be attentive and patient, it can take longer for someone to make their point.
  • Avoid correcting or speaking for the person; wait quietly while the person speaks and resist the temptation to finish his or her sentences.
  • Tell the person if you do not understand, do not pretend you understand.

Good Practice

  • Stand in front of the person and try and place yourself at their eye level.
  • Do not move about so that the person has to continually change position in order to speak directly to you.
  • Talk directly to a wheelchair user, not to their companion.
  • Do not lean on a wheelchair – you are invading the body space of the user.

Arranging a meeting

  • Check that there are suitable parking facilities close to your meeting place.
  • Make sure that the entrance is level, or has a ramp.
  • Ensure that the doors are easy to open or that a member of staff is available to offer assistance with heavy or revolving doors.
  • Check where the nearest accessible toilets are located.
  • Organise a meeting room that is easy to get to for someone using a wheelchair or walking aids.
  • Ensure that it has sufficient space to allow the person with a disability to remain fully mobile and unobstructed.

Good Practice

  • Be patient and encourage the individual.
  • Be prepared to explain more than once if necessary, and check to ensure you have been understood.
  • Ask the person to stop you if they do not understand
  • Do not ask multiple questions and keep the sentence structure concise and jargon-free.
  • Use clear and unambiguous language, whether in written or verbal communication.
  • Ask if the person has a job coach or support worker who provides employment assistance if required.

Autistic Spectrum Condition

People with Autism or Asperger syndrome thrive in a structured and well-organised environment and may have many strengths such as accuracy, good eye for detail, reliability and meticulous application of routine tasks. However, they may have (often mild) difficulties with the following:

  • Clear understanding of verbal and non-verbal communication such as body language or facial expressions.
  • Building social relationships, starting and maintaining conversations on topics that may not be of particular interest to them.
  • Imaginative activity: they may have narrow interests and find it hard to think in abstract ways. They may be much more comfortable with facts rather than hypotheses.

Good practice

  • Ask closed questions and avoid open questions. For example, asking, ‘Tell me about yourself’ is very vague and the person may not be able to judge exactly what you want to know.
  • Ask questions based on the person’s real/past experiences, for example, ‘In your last job, did you do any filing or data input?’
  • Avoid hypothetical or abstract questions, for example ‘How do you think you’ll cope with working if there are lots of interruptions?’
  • If the person is talking too much, let them know – they may find it hard to judge how much information you need. You can do this tactfully by simply saying, ‘Thank you, you’ve told us enough about that now.’
  • Be prepared to prompt the person in order to extract all the relevant information.
  • Be aware that the person may interpret language literally. Asking, ‘How did you find your last job?’ may result in an answer of ‘I used Google maps’.
  • Be aware that eye contact may be fleeting or prolonged, depending on the individual.

Communication methods

Information should be made available that is understandable and accessible by all. Some people with disabilities will need information to be provided in different formats.

Not all communication provided by the organisation needs to be provided in every format but it is important to have an awareness of what different methods are available and how to produce these quickly if they are required.

Local and national support organisations may be able to provide these services.

This is of particular benefit to people with learning disabilities, visual impairments, low literacy levels, or those who may have problems with their hands. You will need to decide whether to record the tape yourself or to go through a transcription agency. Doing it yourself may be appropriate if responding to an individual request, whilst an agency can produce a tape with a more ‘professional’ feel, often including music and other effects.

Making information available in electronic format can be a cheap and easy way to reach a growing number of blind and partially sighted people who have access to computers, smart phones and other information technology devices.

Braille is a system of raised dots which some blind people can read with their fingers. Some blind and partially sighted people prefer particular types of information in Braille, for example information to be used in meetings or to be read silently.

For the majority of blind and partially sighted people, larger print is essential. No single size is suitable for everyone but most people prefer their large print in the range of 16 to 22 point in a clear font such as Arial.

BSL is a visual language, communicated in a variety of ways: using specific signs, using different hand shapes and movements, facial expressions, lip patterns and upper body movements.

Lip-speakers convey a speaker’s message to lip-readers without using their voice. They produce clearly the shape of the words, the flow, rhythm and phrasing of natural speech and repeat the stress used by the speaker.

Communication methods used by deafblind people vary greatly depending on the amount of residual sight and hearing. Some will be able to hear speech, lip-read and use sign language; many of those who can’t hear speech or see sufficiently to follow lip-reading or visual sign language will use some form of tactile communication.

Minicoms/Textphones allow hearing impaired people to communicate over the telephone using a keyboard and visual display.