Disability Etiquette – It doesn’t have to be hard

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Disability etiquette is a set of guidelines dealing specifically with how to approach a person with a disability.  It comes down to one simple rule: do not assume.

As people with a disability make up a significant proportion of our population, there is a need for everyday Australians to understand how to relate to people with a range of disabilities.

It’s not uncommon for people to feel uncomfortable and challenged with interacting with someone with a disability. Many of us want to do the right thing but aren’t sure what the right thing is, this can sometimes lead to both parties feeling awkward. The important thing to remember is that you’re talking to another human being who deserves the respect and empathy offered to others.

And with one in five Australians living with some kind of disability, not all of which are visible, it can happen more often than you’d think.

As long as you approach all interactions with a willingness to listen and learn, positive change will happen.  There’s substance behind the old adage “don’t assume anything, it makes an ass out of you and me”.

Below are some great resources if you’re working in disability support services, WA and beyond. Or even if you’re just looking to brush up on your communication skills in a considered way.

Focus on the person, not the impairment

In Australia, best practice language is to use “person with disability” or “people with disability”.

Don’t assume that a person cannot or does not want to be involved simply because they have disability. Adjustments can almost always be made so that everyone can be included.

The Australian Network on Disability has a great set of guidelines to consider when approaching conversations as inclusively as possible:

 Basic tips

  •         Avoid asking personal questions about someone’s disability.
  •         Be considerate of the extra time it might take for a person to do or say something.
  •         Be polite and patient when offering assistance, and wait until your offer is accepted. Listen or ask for specific instructions. Be prepared for your offer to be refused.
  •         Relax. Anyone can make mistakes. Offer an apology if you feel you’ve caused embarrassment.  Keep a sense of humour and be willing to communicate.

You can read more about their tips here.

Tip from Support Workers

As an organisation that provides support to hundreds of people with disability across the Perth Metro area, we have one tip for the public and people in customer service roles.  Recognise and talk to the person we support, not us as their Support Worker.  We are there to support the person to be active in their community and be in control of their lives and choices.  We stand beside or behind them to give you the chance to talk to and engage with them.  If they need support from us we will step forward, but often they just need support from you – that’s why we are engaging with you!

Looking for a visual aid?

 This poster from Independence Australia is a fun and engaging visual guide to disability etiquette!

As everyone is different, it’s only a general guide. The good news is, the tips are similar to the rules applied for good etiquette in general.


 People with disabilities are individuals with families, jobs, hobbies, likes and dislikes, and problems and joys. While disability is an integral part of who they are, it alone does not define them.