The handicaps that people can suffer from vary greatly in severity and the ways in which they limit someone’s lifestyle. Luckily in our modern society we view people with handicaps as valued members of society who routinely contribute in their own way.

While it’s important to be realistic and acknowledge limitations, it’s just as important not to define handicapped people by those limitations. Whether you are in a caring role, visiting disability accommodation or just briefly meeting a handicapped person it pays to understand some basic etiquette to avoid offending them or others.

Let’s take a look at some of the general ways you should interact with disabled people.

Address them politely

When you are addressing or referring to someone with a disability it is polite to use their personhood before describing their disability. For example, it’s more correct to say “this person with a mental illness” than it is to say “this mentally ill person”.

This may seem unimportant but as part of not defining people by their conditions it goes a long way. There are many different accepted and unaccepted terms that differ between handicaps and it’s important to do some cursory research into them before interacting with someone who suffers from them.

Many terms that were at one time considered politically correct are no longer so. Terms like retarded or dumb were once common speak amongst medical professionals but have since become offensive as they were given negative connotations.

Use direct communication

Many handicapped people will be assisted by family, friends, medical professionals or interpreters throughout their daily lives. Handicapped people living in provided disability accommodation live as independently as possible but still may require visits from these people from time to time.

When you are attempting to communicate with a disabled person it is polite to address them directly and not through a proxy.

Even if the handicapped person cannot understand you and must rely on their interpreter, it’s important that you look at them and make it clear you are asking them and not someone else. If someone is in a wheelchair then find a seat close to their level but don’t bend or stare down at them.

Always ask before helping

While obviously you don’t wait if it’s an emergency, it’s polite to ask if a handicapped person requires assistance before intervening. Sometimes people who think they’re coming to the rescue can actually come off as patronising and belittling, even if they were well intentioned.

Many people with disabilities might take longer than you to do things but this does not mean they are struggling with it. If you’re unsure, just ask politely if they need assistance and promptly leave if they say they don’t.

This also counts for giving unsolicited advice to those with a disability, especially if you are not a doctor. Your non-expert medical opinion is largely irrelevant and people with handicaps already have professionals attending to their needs.

Don’t hesitate to ask relevant questions

Handicapped people have many differences to non-handicapped people in the way they carry out activities and interact with others. While it shouldn’t be the only thing you talk to them about, it’s not offensive to ask questions relating to their condition.

Acting awkwardly because you’re afraid to ask something is more alienating to a handicapped person than just being honest. Most handicapped people are mature enough to understand people are curious and to answer basic questions.

It’s not condescending to ask someone in a wheelchair if they know where the ramp to a disability accommodation building is or a deaf person if they can read your lips. These questions are innocent and make a handicapped person’s life easier even if they call attention to their disability.