Disability Etiquette: Equal Treatment, Not Special Treatment

People With Disabilities

People with disabilities are not conditions or diseases. They are individual human beings. See the person who has a disability as a person, not as a disability. For example, a person is not an epileptic but rather a person who has epilepsy. First and foremost they are people. Only secondarily do they have one or more disabling conditions. They prefer to be referred to in print or broadcast media as people with disabilities.

Distinction between Disability and Handicap

The term disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of a person's major life activities, a record of such impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment.

This is the same definition used in Sections 503 and 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Fair Housing Amendments Act. A disability is a condition caused by an accident, trauma, genetics or disease which may limit a person's mobility, hearing, vision, speech or mental function. Some people with disabilities have one or more disabilities. A handicap is a physical or attitudinal constraint that is imposed upon a person, regardless of whether that person has a disability. Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary defines handicap as to put at a disadvantage.

For example, some people with disabilities use wheelchairs. Stairs, narrow doorways and curbs are handicaps imposed upon people with disabilities who use wheelchairs.

People with disabilities have all types of disabling conditions, including:

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The ADA was signed into law on July 26, 1990. The purpose of the Act is to:

The ADA gives people with disabilities civil rights protection that is like that provided to individuals on the basis of race, sex, national origin and religion. People with disabilities now have a legal alternative for correcting accessibility barriers.

The ADA guarantees equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in:

Reasonable Accommodations in the Work Place

Reasonable accommodations enhance the opportunity for qualified persons with disabilities who may not otherwise be considered for reasons unrelated to actual job requirements to be or remain employed. The purpose of providing reasonable accommodations is to enable employers to hire or retain qualified job candidates regardless of their disability by eliminating barriers in the work place.

According to the Department of Justice government-wide regulations, section 41.53, "A recipient shall make reasonable accommodation to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified handicapped applicant or employee unless the recipient can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation of its program."

Employers are not required to go to outrageous expense or trouble to make accommodations for a disabled employee. The key is whether the requested accommodation is objectively reasonable or not. Reasonable accommodation has to do with employees and must be made, unless they impose a significant difficulty or expense.

No modifications need be undertaken to fulfill the requirement of Title I until a qualified individual with a disability is being hired. Readily achievable, on the other hand, has to do with clients or guests. These modifications must be made before the disabled guest or client ever arrives. They include things such as:

Inquiries made of an individual about limitations in job performance must be directly related to the prospective or existing position. Accommodations are tailored for a certain job or situation that an individual is hired to perform.

The law requires that each person with a disability must be consulted prior to the planning and be involved in the implementation of an accommodation. Types of accommodations include:

Examples of assistive devices often used in the work place include:

Decisions to implement an accommodation should include making a choice that will best meet the needs of the individual by minimizing limitation and enhancing his or her ability to perform job tasks, while serving the interests of your majority work force.

Reception Etiquette

Know where accessible restrooms, drinking fountains and telephones are located. If such facilities are not available, be ready to offer alternatives, such as the private or employee rest- room, a glass of water or your desk phone.

Use a normal tone of voice when extending a verbal welcome. Do not raise your voice unless requested.

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 acceptable. For those who cannot shake hands, touch the person on the shoulder or arm to welcome and acknowledge their presence.

Treat adults in a manner befitting adults. Call a person by his or her first name only when extending that familiarity to all others present.

Never patronize people using wheelchairs by patting them on the head or shoulder. When addressing a person who uses a wheelchair, never lean on the person's wheelchair. The chair is part the space that belongs to the person who uses it.

When talking with a person with a disability, look at and speak directly to that person rather than through a companion who may be along. If an interpreter is present, speak to the person who has scheduled the appointment, not to the interpreter. Always maintain eye contact with the applicant, not the interpreter.

Offer assistance in a dignified manner with sensitivity and respect. Be prepared to have the offer declined. Do not proceed to assist if your offer to assist is declined. If the offer is accepted, listen to or accept instructions.

Allow a person with a visual impairment to take your arm (at or about the elbow). This will enable you to guide rather than propel or lead the person. Offer to hold or carry packages in a welcoming manner. Example: "May I help you with your packages?" Offer to hand a coat or umbrella, but do not offer to hand a cane or crutches unless the individual requests otherwise.

Conversation Etiquette

When talking to a person with a disability, look at and speak directly to that person, rather than through a companion who may be along. Don't be embarrassed if you happen to use accepted common expressions such as "See you later" or "Got to be running along" that seem to relate to the person's disability.

To get the attention of a person with a hearing impairment, tap the person on the shoulder or wave your hand. Look directly at the person and speak clearly, naturally and slowly to establish if the person can read lips. Not all persons with hearing impairments can lip-read. Those who can will rely on facial expression and other body language to help in understanding. Show consideration by placing yourself facing the light source and keeping your hands, cigarettes and food away from your mouth when speaking. Keep mustaches well-trimmed. Shouting won't help. Written notes may.

When talking with a person in a wheelchair for more than a few minutes, use a chair, whenever possible, in order to place yourself at the person's eye level to facilitate conversation. When greeting a person with a severe loss of vision, always identify yourself and others who may be with you. Example: "On my right is Mary Smith."

When conversing in a group, give a vocal cue by announcing the name of the person to whom you are speaking. Speak in a normal tone of voice, indicate in advance when you will be moving from one place to another, and let it be known when the conversation is at an end.

Listen attentively when you're talking to a person who has a speech impairment. Keep your manner encouraging rather than correcting. Exercise patience rather than attempting to speak for a person with speech difficulty. When necessary, ask short questions that require short answers or a nod or a shake of the head. Never pretend to understand if you are having difficulty doing so. Repeat what you understand, or incorporate the interviewee's statements into each of the following questions. The person's reactions will clue you in and guide you to understanding.

If you have difficulty communicating, be willing to repeat or rephrase a question. Open-ended questions are more appropriate than closed-ended questions. For example, when possible begin your question with "how" rather than "what." Examples:

Closed-Ended Question: "You were an administrative assistant in ARTS Company in the community planning division for seven years. What did you do there?"

Open-ended Question: "Tell me about your recent position as an administrative assistant."

Do not shout at a hearing impaired person. Shouting distorts sounds accepted through hearing aids and inhibits lip reading. Do not shout at a person who is blind or visually impaired -- he or she can hear you!

To facilitate conversation, be prepared to offer a visual cue to a hearing impaired person or an audible cue to a vision impaired person, especially when more than one person is speaking.

Interviewing & Scheduling Etiquette

Some interviewees with visual or mobility impairments will phone in prior to the appointment date, specifically for travel information. The scheduler should be very familiar with the travel path in order to provide interviewees with detailed information.

Make sure the place where you plan to conduct the interview is accessible by checking the following:

When scheduling interviews for persons with disabilities, consider their needs ahead of time:

Be considerate of the additional travel time that may be required by a person with a disability.

Familiarize the interviewee in advance with the names of all persons he or she will be meeting during the visit. This courtesy allows persons with disabilities to be aware of the names and faces that will be met.

People with disabilities use a variety of transportation services when traveling to and from work. When scheduling an interview, be aware that the person may be required to make a reservation 24 hours in advance, plus travel time. Provide the interviewee with an estimated time to schedule the return trip when arranging the interview appointment.

Expect the same measure of punctuality and performance from people with disabilities that is required of every potential or actual employee.

Interviewing Technique Etiquette

Conduct interviews in a manner that emphasizes abilities, achievements and individual qualities. Conduct your interview as you would with anyone. Be considerate without being patronizing. When interviewing a person with a speech impediment, stifle any urge to complete a sentence of an interviewee.

If it appears that a person's ability inhibits performance of a job, ask: "How would you perform this job?" Examples:
Inappropriate: "I notice that you are in a wheelchair, and I wonder how you get around. Tell me about your disability."
Appropriate: "This position requires digging and using a wheelbarrow, as you can see from the job description. Do you foresee any difficulty in performing the required tasks? If so, do you have any suggestions how these tasks can be performed?"

Interviewing Courtesies for Effective Communication

Interviewers need to know whether or not the job site is accessible and should be prepared to answer accessibility-related questions.

Interviewing a person using Mobility Aids: Enable people who use crutches, canes or wheelchairs to keep them within reach. Be aware that some wheelchair users may choose to transfer themselves out of their wheelchairs (into an office chair, for example) for the duration of the interview. Here again, when speaking to a person in a wheelchair or on crutches for more than a few minutes, sit in a chair. Place yourself at that person's eye level to facilitate conversation.

Interviewing a person with Vision Impairments: When greeting a person with a vision impairment always identify yourself and introduce anyone else who might be present. If the person does not extend their hand to shake hands, verbally extend a welcome.

Example: "Welcome to the Arts Council's offices." When offering seating, place the person's hand on the back or arm of the seat. A verbal cue is helpful as well. Let the person know if you move or need to end the conversation. Allow people who use crutches, canes or wheelchairs to keep them within reach.

Interviewing a person with Speech Impairments: Give your whole attention with interest when talking to a person who has a speech impairment. Ask short questions that require short answers or a nod of the head. Do not pretend to understand if you do not. Try rephrasing what you wish to communicate, or ask the person to repeat what you do not understand. Do not raise your voice. Most speech impaired persons can hear and understand.

Interviewing a person who is Deaf or Hearing Impaired: If you need to attract the attention of a person who is deaf or hearing impaired, touch him or her lightly on the shoulder. If the interviewee lip-reads, look directly at him or her. Speak clearly at a normal pace. Do not exaggerate your lip movements or shout. Speak expressively because the person will rely on your facial expressions, gestures and eye contact. Note: It is estimated that only 4 out of 10 spoken words are visible on the lips. Place yourself placing the light source and keep your hands, cigarettes and food away from your mouth when speaking. Shouting does not help and can be detrimental. Only raise your voice when requested. Brief, concise written notes may be helpful.

In the US most deaf people use American Sign Language (ASL). ASL is not a universal language. It is a language with its own syntax and grammatical structure. When scheduling an interpreter for a non-English speaking person, be sure to retain an interpreter that speaks and interprets in the language of the person. If an interpreter is present, it is common for the interpreter to be seated beside the interviewer, across from the interviewee. Interpreters facilitate communication. They should not be consulted or regarded as a reference for the interview.

Do's and Don'ts


The term "disability" has traditionally held different meanings for different people. The definition found in the ADA is not simply a medical definition. It refers not only to physical and mental impairments, but attitudes towards disabilities, in an effort to provide civil rights protection for anyone discriminated against for any reason related to disability.

Disability is 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.

Use "person with a disability", never cripple or cripples—the image conveyed is of a twisted, deformed, useless body.

Avoid using handicap, handicapped person or handicapped. Folklore (and some history) suggests that "handicap" comes from the English phrase "cap in hand" and was used in reference to beggars with disabilities who were officially licensed to beg because of their disabilities. These people were given special caps in which to collect money.

Instead of the word "handicap," you should use the word "disability" and use it only as an adjective, never as a noun, such as in the term "the blind" or "the handicapped." It is best to place the adjective after the noun, such as "person with a disability." This emphasizes the individual as being important, not the disability.

For example, say people with cerebral palsy, people with spinal cord injuries. 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., is proper.

Victim: People with disabilities do not like to be perceived as victims for the rest of their lives, long after any victimization has occurred. Say person who has a disability, has a condition of (spina bifida, etc.), or born without legs, etc.

Never say defective, defect, deformed, or vegetable. These words are offensive, dehumanizing, degrading and stigmatizing.

Deafness VS Hearing Impairment: 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 spearheading, and who usually has listening and hearing abilities adequate for ordinary telephone communication. Many hard of hearing individuals use a hearing aid.

Deaf and dumb is as bad as it sounds. The inability to hear or speak does not indicate intelligence. Say person who has a mental or developmental disability. The words retarded, moron, imbecile, idiot are offensive to people who bear the label.

Confined/restricted to a wheelchair or wheelchair bound should be avoided. Most people who use a wheelchair or mobility devices do not regard them as confining. They are viewed as liberating; a means of getting around. Say uses a wheelchair or crutches; a wheelchair user; or walks with crutches.

Instead of able-bodied; able to walk, see, hear, etc.; say "people who are not disabled." Healthy, when used to contrast with "disabled," implies that the person with a disability is unhealthy. Many people with disabilities have excellent health. If needed, it's better to say people who do not have a disability.

Normal: When used as the opposite of disabled, implies that the person with a disability is abnormal. No one wants to be labeled as abnormal. The truth is that most people who are disabled are even more like than unlike those who are not disabled.

Do not use "afflicted with, suffers from." Most people with disabilities do not regard themselves as afflicted or suffering continually. It is acceptable to say, a person who has (name of disability).

Afflicted is not a good term to use either. A disability is not an affliction, although an affliction may have caused the disability.

Americans With Disabilities Act Barrier Removal Tax Credit and Deductions

The federal government conducted a survey in the late 1970s to determine the costs of accessibility in federal facilities impacted by the laws at that time. They found that the maximum cost of accessibility in new construction was less than 1% when accessibility was considered at the beginning of the project.

Accessibility can become expensive if it is ignored until late in the process when changes and compromises need to be made. Then the cost of trying to build accessibility into an existing building can be significant. To encourage building owners to make modifications under these circumstances, congress authorized tax incentives to encourage barrier removal.

The Federal Government has changed the tax code to help businesses improve accessibility. Congress legislated the annual tax credit of $5,000; for the purpose of enabling eligible small businesses to comply with applicable requirements under the ADA of 1990 (Section 44 of Internal Revenue Code).

Any qualified expenditures made after November 5, 1990, the date of enactment, are eligible for the Section 44 credit. Additionally, Section 190 of the Internal Revenue Code allows $15,000 to be deducted annually for qualified architectural and transportation barrier removal expense. This provision became effective with tax year 1991.

A small business may elect to take a general business credit of up to $5,000 annually for eligible access expenditures to comply with the requirements of ADA. Small business is defined as a business with gross receipts of $1 million or 30 or fewer full-time employees.

Expenditures must be geared toward ADA compliance and must be reasonable and necessary expenses. Included are amounts related to removing barriers, providing interpreters, readers or similar services and modifying or acquiring equipment and materials.

The amount that may be taken as a credit is 50% of the amount exceeding $250, but less than $10,250 per tax year. For instance, if $7,500 is spent to provide an interpreter, the credit would be $3,625 ($7,500 minus $250 divided by 2).

A business may take this credit each year it makes an accessibility improvement, be it purchase of equipment, provision of communication assistance or removal of an architectural barrier. This tax credit, called the Disabled Access Tax Credit, should be claimed on IRS Form 8826.

Section 190 applies to all businesses and has a narrower base for deductions. Qualified expenditures for the removal of architectural and transportation barriers include expenses specifically attributable to the removal of existing barriers (such as steps or narrow doors) or inaccessible parking spaces, bathrooms and vehicles. They may be fully deducted, up to a maximum of $15,000 for each taxable year. Expenses from the construction or comprehensive renovation of a facility or vehicle or the normal replacement of depreciable property are not included.

For further information contact your local IRS Office or:

Chief Counsel
Internal Revenue Service
111 Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20024
202-566-3292 (V)

Office on the ADA
Civil Rights Division
US Dept. of Justice
PO Box 66118
Washington, DC 20035-6118
202-514-0301 (V), 202-514-0383 (TDD)

Action Plan For Access Compliance

General Items

Signage: If accessible facilities are identified as such, then the international symbol of accessibility should be used. Room numbers and names signage shall consist of color contrasting characters between 5/8 to 2 inches high, raised 1/32 inch minimum, and mounted alongside the door on the handle-side no more than 8 inches from door jamb and at a height of 60 inches above the floor. Accessibility symbols can also designate levels of access for events and locations so that people can decide beforehand if they will be comfortable with the accommodations.

Telephones: If public telephones are provided, then at least one unit per floor shall be accessible. Mount at 54 inches maximum to controls for side approach or 48 inches maximum for frontal approach. Equip with volume control. Text telephones (TDDs) shall be permanently affixed within or adjacent to the enclosure, or a portable TDD should be available.

Alarms: Any electronically controlled device used for emergency warning must be visible in addition to audible.

Hazardous Areas: Uniform warning textures shall be placed on floors and door handle surfaces to hazardous areas such as stairways. This can be done by adhering a rough material to the floor surface (36 inch minimum width) and door handle.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who is protected by the ADA?
The ADA covers people with both physical and emotional disabilities. A person is considered to be disabled or to have a disability if he or she: has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of his or her major life activities; has a record of such an impairment; or is regarded as having such an impairment.

What must my employer do to accommodate my disability?
Under the ADA, no covered employer may discriminate in hiring, promoting or laying off any person with a disability. Employers must make reasonable accommodations for their disabled employees so as to allow them to perform their jobs efficiently and safely.

Is there a guide and/or reference on new construction and remodeling jobs requiring accessible design?
Many small jobs, such as electrical outlets, stair work, door changes, etc. will continue to be done without formal design. City maintenance crews will need to be aware of requirements in order to carry out these typical jobs. It should be remembered guidelines are the bare essentials of a barriers elimination program. You should consult your local building inspections department on any questions or details that might arise from these types of jobs.

Must an employer modify existing facilities to make them accessible?
An employer may be required to modify facilities to enable an individual to perform essential job functions and to have equal opportunity to participate in other employment-related activities.

What kinds of signs should I use?
The international symbol of accessibility should be used for all your accessible facilities, e.g., restrooms, room numbers and names.

Is it expensive to make all new construction of public facilities accessible?
The cost of incorporating accessibility features in new construction is less than one percent of construction costs. This is a small price in relation to the economic benefits from full accessibility in the future, such as increased employment and consumer spending and decreased welfare dependency.

Accessibility Resources


See our Accessibility links for more listings »


Civil Rights Commission
211 E Maple, 2nd Floor
Des Moines IA 50309
515-281-4121 (V)

Disability Determination Services Bureau
510 E 12th St
Des Moines IA 50309
515-281-4474 (V)
515-281-4380 (FAX)

Governor's Developmental Disabilities Council
617 E 2nd St
Des Moines IA 50309
515-281-9082 (V)
515-281-9087 (FAX)
Governor's DD Council provides services to people with developmental disabilities and their families. Information and guidance is available in a supportive and caring environment to help them live fulfilling lives in their communities.

Iowa Department for the Blind
524 4th St
Des Moines, IA 50309
515-281-1333 (V)
515-281-1355 (TTY)
The Iowa Department for the Blind works in partnership with Iowans who are blind or visually impaired to reach their goals.

Iowa Dept of Human Rights Division of Persons with Disabilities
321 E 12th
Lucas Bldg - 1st Floor
Des Moines IA 50319
515-281-5969 (V)
Division of Deaf Services
515-281-3164 (V/TTY)
The Iowa Department of Human Rights was created to provide consolidated administration of and support for various advocacy activities and related services.

Iowa Department of Human Services Mental Health/Developmental Disabilities
1305 E Walnut, Hoover Bldg
515-281-5874 (V)
515-281-5281 (TTY)
The Iowa Department of Human Services provides financial, health, and human services that promote the greatest possible independence and personal responsibility for all clients.

Iowa Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services
510 E 12th
Des Moines IA 50309
515-281-4311 (V)
Through the Iowa Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, Iowans with disabilities are attempting to be more independent, more productive and more involved in their communities.

Relay Iowa
800-735-2943 (V)
800-735-2942 (TDD)
Relay Iowa is a telecommunications relay service that links deaf and hard of hearing people via the telephone. The center is in operation seven days a week, 24 hours a day. It provides relay service for telephone calls, personal or business, to or from deaf, hard of hearing, or speech-impaired telephone customers.

VSA Iowa
400 E 14th, Grimes Bldg
Des Moines, IA 50319
515-281-3179 (V/TTY)
VSA Iowa has statewide programs providing arts opportunities for preschoolers through 90-year-olds. The mission of VSAI is to provide quality arts opportunities for people with special needs.

Other Disability/Accessibility Resources

AbleData offers information regarding assistive technology. From the US Dept. of Education, National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, they put assistive technology and disability related resources at your fingertips. Contact them at 800-227-0216 or www.abledata.com.

The Access Board (Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board), created in 1973, has served the nation as the only independent federal agency whose primary mission is accessibility for people with disabilities. Visit them at www.access-board.gov.

You can view the full text of the ADA from the U.S. Department of Justice, Americans with Disabilities Act Document Center. This award-winning site contains ADA Statute, regulations, ADAAG (Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines), federally reviewed tech sheets, and other assistance documents. Visit them at www.usdoj.gov/crt/ada.

The Adaptive Technology Resource Centre is sponsored by the University of Toronto, Canada. Their glossary of adaptive technology is especially useful. Check them out at www.utoronto.ca/~ic.

The Alliance for Technology Access is a network of community-based resource centers that provides information and support services to children and adults with disabilities and helps increase their use of standard, assistive, and information technologies. Visit them at www.ataccess.org

The Center for Universal Design is committed to the design of products and environments to be usable by all people. It is one of the most effective ways to ensure access. A national research, information, and technical assistance center that evaluates, develops, and promotes accessible and universal design in buildings and related products, visit them at www.ncsu.edu/design/cud.

The Disability Access Symbols is produced by the Graphic Artists Guild Foundation, these 12 symbols may be used to promote and publicize accessibility of places, programs and other activities for people with various disabilities. You can download the symbols on your computer or purchase them on disk. Contact them at 212-463-7730 or visit their site at www.gag.org/das.

Easy Access for Students and Institutions (EASI) provides information and guidance in the area of access-to-information technologies by individuals with disabilities. Check them out at 800-433-3243 or http:/easi.ed.gov.

The Job Accommodation Network (JAN on the Web) is an international consulting service that provides information about job accommodations and the employability of people with disabilities. JAN in the US is a service of the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities. You can reach them at 800-526-7234 (V) or http://janweb.icdi.wvu.edu.

The Virtual Assistive Technology Center offers resources and is a place to download computer software that provides access to technology for disabled persons. Check them out at http://www.at-center.com.