Communicating, Working With & Writing About People With Disabilities

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), other legislation, and the efforts of many disability organizations have begun to improve accessibility in buildings, increase access to education, open employment opportunities, and develop realistic portrayals of persons with disabilities.

However, more needs to be done. Many people view persons with disabilities as individuals to be pitied, feared, or ignored. These attitudes may come from discomfort with individuals who are perceived to be different or simply from a lack of information. As professionals, you are in a unique position to help shape the public image of people with disabilities.

Suggestions on how to relate and communicate with and about people with disabilities are included in this booklet. We must look beyond the disability and look at the ability and capability - the things that make each of us unique and worthwhile!

The information in this booklet was compiled from a variety of sources. As always, we welcome your comments and suggestions. Call or write for more information or additional copies.

Ten Commandments

Use the "Ten Commandments of Etiquette for Communicating with People with Disabilities" to help you in your communications.

  1. When talking with a person with a disability, speak directly to that person rather than through a companion or sign language interpreter.
  2. When introduced to a person with a disability, it is appropriate to offer to shake hands. People with limited hand use or who wear an artificial limb can usually shake hands. (Shaking hands with the left hand is an acceptable greeting.)
  3. When meeting a person who is visually impaired, always identify yourself and others who may be with you. When conversing in a group, remember to identify the person to whom you are speaking.
  4. If you offer assistance, wait until the offer is accepted. Then listen to or ask for instructions.
  5. Treat adults as adults. Address people who have disabilities by their first names only when extending the same familiarity to all others. (Never patronize people who use wheelchairs by patting the on the head or shoulder.)
  6. Leaning on or hanging on to a personís wheelchair is similar to leaning on or hanging on to a person and is generally considered annoying. The chair is part of the personal body space of the person who uses it.
  7. Listen attentively when youíre talking with a person who has difficulty speaking. Be patient and wait for the person to finish, rather than correcting or speaking for them. Never pretend to understand if you are having difficulty doing so. Instead, repeat what you have understood and allow the person to respond.
  8. When speaking with a person who uses a wheelchair or a person who uses crutches, place yourself at eye level in front of the person to facilitate the conversation.
  9. To get the attention of a person who is deaf, tap the person on the shoulder or wave your hand. Look directly at the person and speak clearly, slowly and expressively to determine if the person can read your lips. For those who do lip read, be sensitive to their needs by placing yourself so that you face the light source and keep hands, cigarettes or food away from your mouth when speaking.
  10. Relax. Donít be embarrassed if you happen to use accepted, common expressions such as "See you later," or "Did you hear about that?" that seems to relate to a personís disability. Donít be afraid to ask questions when youíre unsure of what to do.

Portrayal Issues

Consider the following when writing about people with disabilities.

Appropriate Terminology

These terms are the commonly used and preferred terms to use when referring to accessibility issues and persons with disabilities.

Accessibility: Creating an environment or program that all participants can participate in equally and with dignity. Grantees must comply with Federal laws, including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, pertaining to programmatic accessibility.

Accessible: Easy to approach, enter, operate, participate in, and/or use safely and with dignity by a person with a disability (i.e., site, facility, work environment, service, or program).

Accessible route: A continuous, level, smooth, hard surface pathway at least 36" wide which has no curbs, steps, stairs, or abrupt changes in level greater than 1/2".

Affirmative Action: Positive action to accomplish the purposes of a program which is designed to increase the employment opportunities of certain groups, may involve goals, timetables, or specifically outlined steps to be undertaken to assure that objectives are reached. The Americans with Disabilities Act does not mandate affirmative action for persons with disabilities, but does require that covered entities ensure nondiscrimination. Title 5, Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act requires that affirmative action be taken in employment considerations of persons with disabilities by federal contractors.

Americans with Disabilities Act: (ADA): A comprehensive civil rights law which makes it unlawful to discriminate in private sector employment against a qualified individual with a disability. The ADA also outlaws discrimination against individuals with disabilities in state and local government services and employment, public accommodations, transportation and tele communication. The law was enacted in July of 1990. The private sector employment provisions (Title I) become effective for employers with 25 or more employees on July 26, 1992, and on July 26, 1994, for employer of 15 or more employees. The public sector employment provisions (Title II) became effective on Jan. 26, 1992.

Audiodescription: "The art of talking pictorial." Recreates in words the colors, setting, costumes, physical characteristics and body language used in live theatrical productions.

Auxiliary aids and services: Devices or services that accommodate a functional limitation of a person with a communication disability. The term includes qualified interpreters and communication devices for persons who are deaf or persons who are hard of hearing; qualified readers, taped texts, Braille or other devices for persons with visual impairments; adaptive equipment or similar services and actions for persons with other communication disabilities.

Blind: A condition in which a person has loss of vision for ordinary life purposes. Visually impaired is the generic term preferred by some individuals to refer to all degrees of vision loss. Use boy who is blind, girl who is visually impaired, or man who has low vision.

Braille: A system of printing and writing for the blind, in which characters are formed by patterns of raised dots which are felt with the fingers. Not all blind people read Braille.

Captioning: Presenting spoken material in subtitles. Some TV programs use "closed captioning" in which the subtitles can be seen only when the TV set is equipped with a decoding device.

Civil Rights: Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provides that no person in the U.S. shall, on the grounds of race, color or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subject to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits the exclusion of persons on the basis of sex from any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. The Age Discrimination Act of 1975 provides for nondiscrimination in federally assisted programs or activities on the basis of age.

Congenital disability: A disability that has existed since birth but is not necessarily hereditary. The term birth defect is inappropriate. Use boy who is blind, girl who is visually impaired, or man who has low vision.

Cultural diversity: A relatively new term referring both to the many peoples of different ethnic origins who have immigrated to the U. S., and to those who were indigenous here. The term can be appropriately used as a substitute for "ethnic", as well as "people of color." The term gained wide popularity after a national meeting of ethnic artists at Open Dialogue II in 1985 in San Antonio. The participants at the meeting passed a resolution which abandoned the use of the term minority. Culturally diverse is now used by established federal, state, local, and educational institutions to describe ethnic communities.

Deaf: Deafness refers to a profound degree of hearing loss that prevents understanding speech through the ear. Hearing impaired is the generic term preferred by some individuals to indicate any degree of hearing lossófrom mild to profound. It includes both hard of hearing and deaf. Hard of hearing refers to a mild to moderate hearing loss that may or may not be corrected with amplification.

Developmental disability: Any mental and/or physical disability that has an onset before age 22 and may continue indefinitely. It can limit major life activities. Term includes individuals with mental retardation, cerebral palsy, autism, epilepsy (and other seizure disorders), sensory impairments, congenital disabilities, traumatic accidents, or conditions caused by disease (polio, muscular dystrophy, etc.).

Disability: General term used for a functional limitation that interferes with a personís ability. It may refer to a physical, sensory, or mental condition. With respect to an individual, the term "disability" means the following: a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual; a record of such an impairment; or being regarded as having such an impairment.

Disabled persons: Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 provides that no otherwise qualified person shall, solely by reason of handicap, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.

Equal Opportunity Employment: Nondiscrimination in hiring, firing, compensation, promotion, recruitment, training, and other terms and conditions of employment regardless of race, color, sex, age, religion, national origin or disability.

Essential job functions: The fundamental job duties of the employment position that the individual with a disability holds or desires. The term essential functions does not include marginal functions of the position.

Ethnic: A term relating to a religious, racial, national, or cultural group. In the arts it is primarily used to describe the individuals who are Hispanic, Black, Asian, or Native American.

Fair Labor Standards: All personnel who work for compensation on a project will be paid not less than the prevailing minimum wage determined by the Secretary of Labor for persons employed in similar activities. No part of any project shall be performed or engaged in under working conditions which are unsanitary, hazardous, or dangerous to the health and safety of the employees in the project.

Fixed seating: Fixed seating in assembly areas can usually be modified to accommodate people in wheelchairs by removing seats along the aisles or in the front or back rows. The space provided for a person in a wheelchair must by 30" x 48" and must be level. Flexible seating can be provided by grouping removable seats in various locations so combinations of disabled and non-disabled people can sit together.

Handicap: Describes a condition or barrier imposed by society, the environment, or by oneís own self. Handicap can be used when citing laws and situations but should not be used to describe a disability; e.g., the stairs are a handicap for her.

Hispanic: Describes an individual who can trace his or her roots to Spain. "Hispanic" has gained wide usage throughout the country.

HIV/AIDS: Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome is an infectious disease resulting in the loss of the bodyís immune system to ward off infections. The disease is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). A positive test for HIV can occur without symptoms of the illness which usually develops up to 10 years later. Preferred terms are people living with HIV, people with AIDS or living with AIDS.

Individual with a disability: A person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of that persons major life activities, has a record of such impairment, or who is regarded as having such an impairment.

Learning disability: Describes a permanent condition that affects the way individuals with average or above-average intelligence take in, retain, and express information. Some prefer specific learning disability, because it emphasizes that only certain learning processes are affected.

Major life activity: Basic activities that the average person in the general population can perform with little or no difficulty, including caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working.

Mental disability: The Federal Rehabilitation Act (Section 504) lists four categories under mental disability: psychiatric disability, retardation, learning disability, and (physical) head trauma. Use these four terms for specific instances; otherwise, mental disability or cognitive impairment is acceptable.

Mental illness: Words such as crazy, maniac, lunatic, demented, and psycho are offensive and should never be applied to people with mental health problems. Psychotic, schizophrenic, neurotic and other specific terms should be used only in proper context and checked carefully for medical and legal accuracy.

Mental retardation: Refers to substantial intellectual delay which requires environmental or personal supports to live independently. Mental retardation is manifested by below average intellectual functioning in two or more life areas (work, education, daily living) and is present before the age of 18. Preferred term is people with mental retardation.

Multicultural and multi-ethnic: People or organizations of various ethnic and racial groups. These two terms are synonymous and describe areas or programs which include more than one ethnic group or groupings of ethnic communities.

Native American: A term describing persons tracing their lineage to tribes indigenous to North America prior to its discovery by the Europeans. North Americans are sensitive about their tribal origin as well as the percentage of pure Native American heritage. The Bureau of Indian Affairs set a percentage rate of 1/4 as a federal standard.

Nondisabled: Appropriate term for people without disabilities. Normal, able-bodied, healthy, or whole are inappropriate.

Qualified individual with a disability: An individual with a disability who satisfies the requisite skill, experience, education and other job-related requirements of the employment position such individual holds or desires, and who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of such position.

Readily achievable: Easily accomplishable and able to be carried out without much difficulty or expense. In determining whether an action is readily achievable, factors to be considered include nature and cost of the action, overall financial resources and the effect on expenses and resources, legitimate safety requirements, impact on the operation of a site, and overall financial resources, size and type of operation of any parent corporation or entity.

Reasonable accommodation: (1) Modification or adjustment to a job application process that enables a qualified applicant with a disability to be considered for the position such qualified applicant desires; or (2) modifications or adjustments to the work environment, or to the manner or circumstances under which the position held or desired is customarily performed, that enables qualified individuals with disabilities to perform the essential functions of that position; or (3) modifications or adjustments that enable a covered entityís employee with a disability to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment as are enjoyed by its other similarly situated employees without disabilities.

Small/short stature: Do not refer to people under 4í 10" as dwarfs or midgets. Use person of small (or short) stature. Dwarfism is an accepted medical term, but it should not be used as general terminology. Some groups prefer little people; however, that term implies a less than full, adult status in society.

Special: Describes that which is different or uncommon about any person. Do not use to describe persons with disabilities (except when citing laws or regulations).

Speech disorder: A condition in which a person has limited or difficult speech patterns. For a person with no verbal speech capability, use woman without speechódo not use mute or dumb.

Stroke: Caused by interruption of blood to brain. Paralysis on one side may result. Stroke survivor is preferred over stroke victim.

Substance dependence: Refers to patterns of use that result in significant impairment in at least three life areas (family, employment, health) over any 12 month period. Substance dependence is generally characterized by impaired control over consumption, preoccupation with the substance and denial of impairment. Substance dependence may include physiological dependence. Although such terms as alcoholic and addict are medically acceptable, they may be offensive to some individuals. Individuals who are substance dependent and currently abstaining from substances are considered in recovery.

Title V of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973: Title of the law which prohibits discrimination on the basis of a disability by the federal government, federal contractors, by recipients of federal financial assistance, and in federally conducted programs and activities.

Underserved groups: Individuals or populations that have been traditionally underserved in the arts. Underserved groups include the elderly, people with disabilities, institutionalized, rural, ethnic, high-risk and low-income populations.

Undue hardship: With respect to the provision of an accommodation, significant difficulty or expense incurred by a covered entity, when considered in light of certain factors. These factors include the nature and cost of the accommodation in relationship to the size, resources, nature, and structure of the employerís operation. Where the facility making the accommodation is part of a larger entity, the structure and overall resources of the larger organization would be considered, as well as the financial and administrative relationship of the facility to the larger organization.

Vocational rehabilitation: Programs designed to assist individuals with disabilities to enter or reenter gainful employment.

Priorities for Accessibility Accommodations

Some Disability Statistics

Financial Considerations

Many accommodations for disabled people are not costly. Based on many years of operating experience, and after serving tens of thousands of actual workplace accommodation cases, the Presidentís Committeeís Job Accommodation Network has discovered that:

Highlights of 504

Program Accessibility: The regulations mandate access to federally assisted programs and services. This means that an organizationís program when viewed in its entirety must be equally accessible to disabled people. This does not mean that every part of a program must be available; e.g., a performance or tour program on Thursday need not have interpreters for deaf visitors if interpreters are available on Tuesday.

Architectural Accessibility: Access to programs does not mean that every corner of every floor in a facility must be made architecturally accessible to people in wheelchairs; e.g., a museum need not provide access to an arts education program on an inaccessible upper floor if the same program is offered on an accessible lower floor.

Check "The Arts and 504: A Handbook for Accessible Arts Programming" for additional information. Copies available from the NEA and the Iowa Arts Council.

Some Ideas for Compliance

Resources You Can Use


See our Accessibility links for more listings »


Accessible Arts, Inc, 1100 State Ave, Kansas City, KS 66102, 913-281-1133 (V/TTY), 913-281-1515 (Fax)

Architectural & Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, F St. NW, Suite 1000, Washington, DC 20004-1111, 202-272-5434 (V), 202-272-5449 (TDD/TTY), 202-272-5447 (Fax),

Deaf Action Center, 2600 E Euclid Ave, Des Moines, IA 50306-1501, 515- 266-5105 (V/Fax), 515-266-0600 (TTY)

Institute for Health & Aging, Disability Statistics Center, PO Box 0646, Laurel Heights, San Francisco, CA 94143-0646, 415-502-5210, 872-2253 (Technical Assistance), 272-5447 (Fax)

Iowa Dept for the Blind, 524 4th St, Des Moines, IA 50309, 515-281-1280 (V), 515-281-1263 (Fax), 515-281-1355 (TTY),,

Iowa Dept. of Human Rights, Division of Persons with Disabilities, Capitol Complex - Lucas Bldg.-1st Fl, Des Moines, IA 50319, 515-281-5969 (V)

National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, 1010 Vermont Ave NW, Suite 920, Washington, DC 20005, 202-347-6352 (V), 202-347-5948 (TDD), 202-737-0526 (Fax),,

National Braille Press, 88 St. Stephen St, Boston, MA 02115, 617-266-6160 (V), 437-0456 (Fax),

National Council On Disability, 1331 F St. NW, Suite 1050, Washington, DC 20004-1107, 202-272-2004 (V), 202-272-2077 (TDD/TTY), 272-2022 (Fax),

National Endowment for the Arts, Special Constituencies, 1100 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington DC 20506, 202-682-5532 (V), 202-682-5496 (TTD/TTY),

National Easter Seal Society, 230 W Monroe St., Suite 1800, Chicago, IL 60606, 312-726-6200 (V), 726-4258 (TDD/TTY), 726-1494 (Fax), 800-221-6827

National Information Center for Children & Youth with Disabilities, PO Box 1492, Washington, DC 20013-1492, 695-0285 (V/TDD/TTY), 202-884-8441 (Fax),,

President's Committee On Employment Of People With Disabilities & Job Accommodation Network (JAN), 1331 F St. NW, Washington, DC 20004-1107, 202-376-6200 (V) , 202-376-6205 (TDD/TTY) , 376-6859 (Fax), 800-526-7234 (V/TDD/TTY),

Regional Disability & Business Technical Assistance Centers, 949-4232 (V/TDD/TTY)

Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, 8719 Colesville Road, Suite 935, Silver Spring, MD 20910, 301-608-0050 (V/TDD/TTY), 608-0508 (Fax),

Research & Training Center on Independent Living, University of Kansas, 4089 Dole Center, Lawrence, KS 66045, 913-864-4095 (VO/TTD), 913-864-5063 FAX,

Superintendent of Documents, US Government Books (order processing code: 3143), PO Box 371954, Pittsburgh, PA 15250-7954, 202-512-2250 (Fax)

US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Publications Information Center, PO Box 12549, Cincinnati, OH 45212-0549, 800-669-3362 (V), 800-669-6820 (TDD/TTY), 489-8692 (Fax),

US Dept. Of Justice, Civil Rights Division - Public Access Section, PO Box 66738, Washington, DC 20035-9998, 202-514-0301 (V), 202-514-0383 (TDD/TTY),

Very Special Arts, J F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Education Office, Washington, DC 20566, 202-628-2800 (VE), (202) 737-0645 (TTY), 202-737-0725 (Fax),

VSA arts of Iowa, Grimes Bldg/3EN - Dept. of Education, Des Moines, IA 50319-0146, 515-281-3179 (V/TTY), 515-242-6025 (Fax)