Disability Etiquette

Lately, we have been discussing service dogs. I thought it might be time to discuss etiquette in regards to approaching people with disabilities and their service dogs.

Disability Etiquette

The following recommendations detail only a few of many types of disability etiquette that should be followed. The main point is to have an open mind and to not assume anything about anyone, regardless of what we might think of their physical condition or status or the fact that they may have a living medical device, a service dog.

By treating a person with a disability in a respectful, polite, and helpful manner, it enables a development of interaction between people. It is important to know that just because people with disabilities sometimes need special treatment does not mean that they are different from people without disabilities. A disability is merely something they have— it does not change who they are or what they can become.

Appropriate ways to interact

  • Be careful not to patronize any person with a disability.
  • Avoid referring to an individual by the condition he or she has, such as “a quadriplegic” or “an epileptic.”
  • Avoid referring to a person with a disability as “one of them.”
  • Do not exclude any person with a disability from any group or hesitate to assign them a particular task.
  • Avoid making the assumption that a person with a disability knows the needs of another person with a disability.
  • When approaching a person, who is blind or visually impaired, identify yourself and anyone who is with you and mention where you are.
  • When giving directions to a person who is blind or visually impaired, be very specific and use words rather than gestures. Explain any obstacles that might be in the person’s way of travel.
  • When handing more than one item to a person who is blind or visually impaired, inform the person which item is on top, middle, and bottom.
  • Do not pet guide dogs or service animals because they might lose their concentration, which could put their owners in danger. Also, do not hesitate to offer to lead the way and let the person take your arm for guidance.
  • When a person who is blind or visually impaired is among a group of people, everyone should identify him or herself each time he or she speaks.
  • Do not generalize that all people who are blind or visually impaired read Braille.


  • Do not park in a parking space reserved for people with disabilities unless you have the proper identification and have a disability that warrants you to park there. People need the bigger area to get out wheelchairs etc.
  • Speak to the person who has the disability and not just someone with them. Be patient and ask questions if you can’t understand them. Never pretend you can understand someone if you do not. Simply say what you think the person said and they will correct it if necessary. Be patient if someone uses a device to communicate with.
  • Do not talk down to the person as though they were a child (unless they really are a child.)
  • If you want to ask someone about his or her disability, then ask. Be polite and respectful.
  • People with physical disabilities are just people with limitations. Please don’t stare for long periods of time.
  • Let your child talk to people with disabilities. It is really sad when parents do not let children ask questions or talk. Children are very accepting.
  • Do not pat someone with a disability on the head. They are not pets or toys. They are people.
  • If it looks like someone with a disability might need some help, just ask him or her. The worst they can do is say, “No, thank you.”
  • Not everyone can shake hands. Try a nod or a smile instead.
  • Relax and just be yourself.

Speaking and writing

  • Please do not use these words/terms when referring to a person with a disability: Cripple, victim, defect, invalid, sick, diseased, wheelchair bound.
  • Please use terms such as person with a disability or “He/she uses a wheelchair…” not wheelchair bound.” Remember persons with disabilities are people first and a person with a disability, second.
  • When you are with someone in a wheelchair:
    • Do not push, drive, lean on, grab, hold or anything else to their wheelchair without permission. This is their personal space and property.
    • Rearrange furniture if there is something blocking the way of their wheelchair.
    • Try to get on eye level with the person if possible.

Service animals

Over 12,000 people with disabilities in the US use the aid of service animals. Although the most familiar types of service animals are guide dogs used by people who are blind, service animals are assisting persons who have other disabilities as well. Many disabling conditions are invisible. Therefore, every person who is accompanied by a service animal may or may not “look” disabled. A service animal is NOT required to have any special certification.

What is a service animal?

A service animal is NOT a pet! According to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), a service animal is any animal that has been individually trained to provide assistance or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a physical or mental disability which substantially limits one or more major life functions.

Service animal access

The civil rights of persons with disabilities to be accompanied by their service animals in all places of public and housing accommodations is protected by the following Federal laws:

  • Americans with Disabilities Act, ADA (1990)
  • Air Carrier Access Act (1986)
  • Fair Housing Amendments Act (1988)
  • Rehabilitation Act (1973)

Service animal etiquette

  • Do not touch the service animal, or the person it assists, without permission.
  • Do not make noises at the service animal, it may distract the animal from doing its job.
  • Do not feed the service animal, it may disrupt his/her schedule.
  • Do not be offended if the person does not feel like discussing his/her disability or the assistance the service animal provides. Not everyone wants to be a walking-talking “show and tell” exhibit.

Remember: Many people do not know what say or how to act when they meet someone with a disability. People with disabilities have the same feelings as you. Many people with disabilities are professionals and have college degrees. Treat someone with a disability as you would like to be treated and you can’t go wrong.

Glossary of acceptable terms

Acceptable Terms Unacceptable Terms
Person with a disability. Cripple, cripples – the image conveyed is of a twisted, deformed, useless body.
Disability, a general term used for functional limitation that interferes with a person’s ability, for example, to walk, hear or lift. It may refer to a physical, mental or sensory condition. Handicap, handicapped person or handicapped.
People with cerebral palsy, people with spinal cord injuries. Cerebral palsied, spinal cord injured, etc. Never identify people solely by their disability.
Person who had a spinal cord injury, polio, a stroke, etc. or a person who has multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, arthritis, etc. Victim. People with disabilities do not like to be perceived as victims for the rest of their lives, long after any victimization has occurred.
Has a disability, has a condition of (spina bifida, etc.), or born without legs, etc. Defective, defect, deformed, vegetable. These words are offensive, dehumanizing, degrading and stigmatizing.
Deafness/hearing impairment. Deafness refers to a person who has a total loss of hearing. Hearing impairment refers to a person who has a partial loss of hearing within a range from slight to severe. Hard of hearing describes a hearing-impaired person who communicates through speaking and speech-reading, and who usually has listening and hearing abilities adequate for ordinary telephone communication. Deaf and Dumb is as bad as it sounds. The inability to hear or speak does not indicate intelligence. Many hard of hearing individuals use a hearing aid.
Person who has a mental or developmental disability. Retarded, moron, imbecile, idiot. These are offensive to people who bear the label.
Use a wheelchair or crutches; a wheelchair user; walks with crutches. Confined/restricted to a wheelchair; wheelchair bound. Most people who use wheelchair or mobility devices do not regard them as confining. They are viewed as liberating; a means of getting around.
Able-bodied; able to walk, see, hear, etc.; people who are not disabled. Healthy, when used to contrast with “disabled.” Healthy implies that the person with a disability is unhealthy. Many people with disabilities have excellent health.
People who do not have a disability. Normal. When used as the opposite of disabled, this implies that the person is abnormal. No one wants to be labeled as abnormal.
A person who has (name of disability.)
Example: A person who has multiple sclerosis.
Afflicted with, suffers from. Most people with disabilities do not regard themselves as afflicted or suffering continually. Afflicted: a disability is not an affliction.


Michele Forto is the lead service dog trainer at Alaska Dog Works. She can be reached at 907-841-1603 or follow her on Twitter at @micheleforto