Tips for working with different disabilities


  • Not all disabilities are visible, such as heart disease, learning disabilities, ADHD, depression, or asthma.
  • Many people have temporary disabilities which are equally as limiting as permanent disabilities.
  • Not everyone with a disability wishes to discuss their disability or its limitations.
  • Wait until you know an individual before asking personal questions.

Identity First - People First Language and Disability Etiquette Resources

 Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing

  • Tap someone who is deaf on the shoulder or wave your hand to get his or her attention.
  • Write notes if you don’t sign (short sentences; common words).
  • Look directly at the person while speaking and don’t obscure your mouth.
    • Try to limit gum chewing
  • Do not accept a head nod for understanding.
  • Talk directly to the person, not the interpreter.
  • Speak in a normal speed and tone unless asked to do otherwise.
  • Avoid standing in front of a light source.
  • Do not walk between two people using sign language as you will be cutting off their conversation.
  • Try to be expressive in your body language, gestures and facial expressions.
  • For more information, please visit Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Resources (Links to an external site.).

 Wheelchair Users/Mobility

  • Position yourself at the same eye level by sitting down if engaged in a long conversation with someone who uses a chair.
  • Treat the chair as part of the user’s personal space; do not touch or lean on the chair.
  • Ask before giving assistance to a wheelchair user and take “No” for an answer.
  • Feel free to use words like “run” or “walk”. Wheelchair users use these words too.
  • Be aware of architectural features which may cause difficulty for wheelchair users, such as steps or insufficiently wide doors.
  • Remember that some parking spaces are reserved for people with mobility limitations, they are not a luxury, they are a necessity.
  • Direct your comments to the individual, not their companion or care attendant.
  • Never pet, feed or otherwise distract a service animal without first obtaining permission from the owner.

Speech & Language

  • Allow time for the person to speak, as they may need more time to respond to you.
  • Avoid the urge to interrupt or complete a sentence for the person.
  • Ask for repetition if you do not understand what the person said.
  • Do not fake understanding.
  • Be aware that you may need to use a variety of communication methods such as writing notes, emailing, or technological options.
  • Be patient and encourage the person toward expression.

 Learning Disability/ADHD

  • Understand that learning disabilities may impact a person’s reading, writing, math, memory, and/or information processing.
  • Realize that this is rarely visible evidence of learning disabilities.
  • Use multiple methods to deliver information.
  • Minimize environment distractions (screen savers, background noises, etc.).
  • Keep in mind that an unconventional response may be influenced by a processing difficulty which affects social interaction.
  • For additional information, check out the Inside Higher Ed webinar. Brent E. Betit, senior vice president of Landmark College and Manju Banerjee, director of the Landmark College Institute for Research and Training, both of whom are national experts on best practices for serving these students. Helping Students with Learning Disabilities Succeed (Webinar) (Links to an external site.)

 Blindness & Visual Impairment

  • Understand that legally blind people may have some vision.
  • Provide very explicit and specific directions if asked. Avoid using such terms as “over there” or “turn this way”.
  • Never pet, feed or otherwise distract a service animal without first getting permission from the owner.
  • Provide class information in accessible, electronic formats to support the individual in using their technology to speak content aloud.
  • Feel free to use words like “see” and “look”.
  • Offer your arm/elbow when leading someone who is blind.
  • Place the person’s hand on the side or back of the chair when seating them.

 Chronic or Acute Health

Examples: Cancer, Asthma, Emphysema, Diabetes, HIV/AIDS, Sickle Cell

  • Understand that each person has unique set of symptoms and treatments.
  • Accept that many health conditions are often invisible to others.
  • Never define the person by the condition. For example, someone should be referred to as “the girl who has cancer” not “the cancer girl”.
  • Do not treat the person as if they are contagious.


Examples: Cerebral Palsy, Seizures, MS, Tourette, Muscular Dystrophy, TBI (traumatic brain injury)

  • Know that some of these conditions will have symptoms that look like mobility issues, others may have similar effects as learning disabilities.
  • Understand that someone may look like they have no disability.


  • Understand that social skills may be impaired.
  • Be sensitive to emotional stress or triggers.
  • Be patient.
  • Set clear boundaries for people repeatedly interacting with you. For example, “Thanks Bob for stopping by. If you want to chat, you need to make an appointment first”.

Intellectual/ Cognitive

  • Be very clear and specific in your language. Sarcasm and subtle humor is often missed.
  • Present instructions in a clear, easy to understand way.
  • Present oral information at a measured pace, using pauses as appropriate to encourage understanding.
  • Offer cues to help with transitions like “we have 5 minutes left until our meeting is done”.
  • Reinforce information in multiple formats.
  • Employ modeling, rehearsing and role-playing to help students learn appropriate interactions.
  • Keep in mind that an unconventional response may be influenced by a cognitive difficulty which affects social interaction.
  • Keep in mind, individuals may engage differently which includes lack of eye contact, socially normal behavior, etc.

 In Case of Emergency

  • Be aware of a person with a disability in emergency situations. It may be necessary to alert someone who is deaf to a fire alarm or lead someone who is blind out of a building.
  • Stay calm. Do your best to keep yourself and others safe.
  • Remember that people with disabilities are not helpless. Offer help, but only give it when accepted or requested.
  • Use first aid and other emergency responses according to your training.




Next: 10 Commandments of Communication



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