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How to Speak to a Disabled Person With Confidence When the Whole World Seems Uncertain

Updated: May 5

Disability writer stick woman with her arms up in the air holding a heart lollipop
A guide to disability inclusive language

Oh my.

Have you ever felt awkward when you met a disabled person? Have you ever wondered how you should react?

What should you say?

We’ve all been there.

Now, there are many enlightening pieces of advice out there showing you ‘what to do’.

The downside?

Most come in the form of a poster.

They can educate you on the mechanics of disability, what to do, and what not to do.

Read through them, and you can learn how to communicate with a disabled person. Heck, you might even do something that wins you extra brownie points like helping a blind person cross the street.

But if you dig deeper, if you want to know how to speak from the heart with confidence, cut through the noise, and even become an advocate, you need something better than a hackneyed cliche ‘What to do’ post.

You need a complete guide.

In this post — this complete, step-by-step guide — I’ll share 3 tips used by disability writers to help you connect with disabled people.

You’ll learn the secret to unlocking empathy, creating life-changing relationships, and motivating people to see disabled people with an open heart; for who they are.

People, like you and me.

You’ll even learn what to do when you meet a service dog.

Sound good?

Let’s get started.

3 trustworthy ways to learn disability-etiquette

1. Understand your hidden fear of disability

Don’t you just hate that prickly feeling you get when you sit next to a person with a disability?

It’s a strange feeling, isn’t it?

At first, you begin to feel tense and avoid eye contact. Then you try to shake it off only to have your face flush like a tomato.

Meanwhile, all I can think of is the scene in Wizard of Oz when Dorothy says, ‘Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.’

What do I mean?

Like Dorothy, you’ve entered an unfamiliar and uncomfortable place. This dark place is your self-doubt, your lack of confidence, your fear of being separate from this person and suddenly having to deal with it.

That’s when it hits you.

You’re afraid of disability, and you feel awkward.

Why does this happen?

For one thing, because you don’t see the human being in front of you. You focus too hard on the disability. Then, you label disability as different. Less-able. Fragile. Bad. And, bad is scary.


Well, one thing is for sure:

You’re not alone.

Did you know 1 out of 3 people thinks having a disability makes you less happy and less productive?

But hang on a minute. Where does this come from?

And, why does this happen?

Let me tell you a little story.

When Anna was 5 years old, her dad’s friend came to ask for a guide dog. He was a towering man, with a big face, and cloudy eyes. He used a cane when walking, and wore large dark sunglasses. Anna was scared of him. “Don’t stare at him, it’s rude! Look away!” her grandmother said.

But, she couldn’t help herself. She wanted to stare. Because when you’re a kid, you want to try and understand why someone has a body different from yours. So, Anna grew up afraid of disability. She learned disability is something you don’t acknowledge, it's something to avoid. And, she realised people think that too.

What might surprise you is that I left out a piece of the story.

It’s the part where I was Anna and instead of ignoring disability, my father asked me, ‘Do you know why his eyes are different? ‘Because Petro has an eye disease that stops him from seeing well. His cane helps him to see when he’s moving around. Now, he would like a guide dog to help him zip through the city.'

In short, the more time we spent together the more I learned Petro was a million laughs, not scary.

He taught me all about canes, how a blind person gets around, even how I can magnify my senses, and see with my ears.

And that’s when the most amazing thing in the world happened.

A glorious seed was planted.

A seed that grew to shape my attitude. My actions. And, my perception of disabled people. A seed that took the place of discrimination, and prejudice, and closed the door to ableism.

And you can plant that seed too! By now you’ll have realised how you see a disabled person springs from your limiting beliefs. A set of beliefs placing a greater value on non disabled people, and lower value on disabled people.

So, when you’re staring, instead of looking away, ask the person next to you the simple question. You’ll be surprised how it will give you permission to engage in conversation and learn that disability is ok.

2. Control the power of words and wipe out ableism

Scope’s new research says, 67 per cent of people feel uncomfortable when talking to a disabled person. They fear sounding patronising, saying the wrong thing, and doing the wrong thing.

Interesting, isn’t it?

If the sight of a disabled person makes you feel uncomfortable, sit with your feeling. Feel it. Be a detective, and investigate the root that gives rise to awkwardness, and leads to ableism.

What is Ableism?

Imagine watching my blind friend Anna Maria walking to the train station, and entering a train.

How do you feel?

Do you believe you’re better at walking?

Or getting on the train? Do you believe finding a seat is easier for you?

The video below, Things People With Disabilities Wish You Knew, talks about it - Ableism.

As you might expect, ableism is when your belief system says your abilities are superior to a disabled person. It’s when you think disabled people are less than.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.


Because our society wasn’t created with disabled people in mind, and the world we live in, is at its core 'ableist.'

In fact, ableism has been lurking in our belief system for an outrageously long time. It’s the disfigured face of discrimination, the brutal side of social and financial injustice, and the primitive stage of inclusion.

What does Ableism look like?

The rotten roots of ableism run deep, they feed off downgrading limiting beliefs, they invade malnourished parts of our society, and twine their way into daily life taking many forms, including:

  1. ​Lack of compliance with disability rights laws

  2. Buildings without braille on signs, elevator buttons, etc.

  3. Buildings without accessible entrances, rooms, etc.

  4. Supermarkets without braille on aisles, or inaccessible entrances

  5. Inaccessible websites

  6. Refusing to provide reasonable accommodations

  7. Refusing to provide access to public transportation

  8. Punch-line disability or mocking disabled people

  9. The belief disabled people need to be healed

  10. Dividing disabled students into separate schools

  11. Using restraint and seclusion to control disabled children

  12. Exposing disability as inspirational or tragic in news stories, movies, and other popular forms of media

  13. Making a movie that doesn’t have audio description or closed captioning

  14. Casting a non-disabled actor to play a disabled character

And that’s just part of the story.

What does Ableism look like day to day?

Here are some simple, yet powerful examples:

  1. Talking to a disabled person like they are a child, or not talking directly to them, or speaking for them

  2. Thinking people must have a visible disability to be disabled

  3. Questioning if a person is disabled, or ‘how much’ they are disabled

  4. Using a mobility device to lean or rest

  5. Choosing an inaccessible place to meet

  6. Wearing scented products in a scent-free environment

  7. Using the accessible bathroom when you don’t need to

  8. Making a movie that doesn’t have audio description or closed captioning

  9. Casting a non-disabled actor to play a disabled character

  10. Asking invasive questions about medical history or personal life without permission

What about obnoxious little-known ableist insults?

I know you don’t mean to be insulting. And, you probably have good intentions.

But even your well-meant comments, and actions can have a negative effect on a person with a disability.

Little-known ableist insults communicate a negative message to a person’s disability. Here are some examples of what I’m talking about:

“I don’t even think of you as disabled.” “Can I pray for you?” “I’m super OCD about how I clean my house.” “That’s lame.” “You are so retarded.” “Wow! That guy is crazy.” “You’re acting so bipolar today.” “It’s like the blind leading the blind here.” “Her ideas fell on deaf ears.” “He’s such a psycho.”

Can I be painfully honest with you for a moment?

The simple truth is when you speak like this you’re saying a disabled person is less than. You’re communicating disability is bad, and negative, it’s a problem in need of a fix. So, you might wonder how can you communicate in a well-respected way?

How can you speak accepting disability as a normal, inevitable part of life?

Let me show you how it’s done.

First off, a disabled person has the right to choose how they talk about their disability.

Next are 2 ways to bring up disability:

Person-first language (PLF) - you put the Person-first language (PLF). This means, you put the word ‘person’ before you mention disability.For example, ‘He is a person who is blind.’

This way you recognise and accept a person who has a disability is, indeed a person.

And get this, it also sends the message of separating the person from the disability.

The point?

You’re respecting the identity of someone with a disability.

Identity-first language (IFL) - here you lead with disability. For example, ‘disabled person’, or ‘She is a blind woman.’

Now, you recognise disability as a piece of their identity.

In short, think of how you feel before you speak, and the kind of message you want to deliver.

Then, like a good friend ask with an open heart, and be fair.

3. Use compassionate disability-inclusive language

Imagine living your whole life explaining to people why the words, and mind-numbing phrases they use are hurtful and offensive to you.

How would you feel?

Let’s be honest, words matter.

In fact, it was Dr Haim Ginott who dropped the revolutionising truth bomb when he said, ‘How parents and teachers talk tells a child how they feel about him. Their statements affect his self-esteem and self-worth. To a large extent, their language determines his destiny.’ And, this is true for adults too.

The point?

When speaking to a disabled person it's easy to let your fear get the better of you.

Take a deep breath, and become aware you’re speaking to another human.

Then, think about how you feel, and the message you want to deliver.

Not sure how?

I created a simple little 'poster' to help you out.

On one side you’ll find respectful disability-inclusive language, on the other side you’ll find the more outdated terms, and phrases.

A guide to disability inclusive language. On the left is what to say. On the right i swhat not to say.
Disability-inclusive language part 1

A guide to disability inclusive language. On the left is what to say. On the right is what not to say.
Disability-inclusive language part 2

Still, finding yourself stuck for words?

In her blog post, 'There’s More Than One Correct Way to Talk About Disability', Halsey Blocher tells us:

'There isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a blanket terminology that fits everyone in the disability community. We’re all different, and that’s beautiful. We’re stronger because of it.

If you ever need to know how you should talk about someone, ask them what they prefer. That’s the most respectful thing you can do.

The choice is yours.

Ok, so you have a kick-butt guide on how to speak to a disabled person.

What happens when you meet a disabled person with a service dog?

Let's jump right in.

Ssshhh! Service dog at work

Do you find walking past a too-cute for words service dog on the street difficult? Does your terrible past experience with a dog freak you out? Do you find your dog allergies sabotaging your coffee break at work?

These are some of the questions my blind clients worry about.

For example, one client was trying to keep her guide dog on task when a pedestrian was making squeaky noises in a desperate attempt to get the dog's attention.

Another client during his coffee break, realised the person sitting next to him was feeding his guide dog.

But, by far the most common problem my clients face are dog owners who struggle to keep their dogs at a distance.

The simple truth is a great number of people don't take service dogs seriously.

And, those who do, don't know what to do when they meet one.

So, let's get down to business and give you the know-how to meet and greet a service dog. But, before I jump into the details, have you ever wondered what a service dog is?

What is a service dog?

​A 'service dog' is a dog trained to help a person with a disability live a more independent and safe life. It's a dog with a job. There are different types of service dogs, for example:

  • Guide dog: A guide dog guides a blind person through crowds, around obstacles, navigates crossings, and locates stairs, doors and public transport. Mobility service dog: A mobility service dog helps pull the wheelchair up a ramp, presses buttons on automatic doors, picks up items, and brings objects, and can turn on and off light switches.

  • Seizure dog: A seizure dog for a person with epilepsy. It can alert his owner before a seizure begins, and stay close during the seizure to prevent injury. Autism service dog: It helps an autistic child and her family manage everyday life – such as the journey to school, shopping trips, and visits to the doctor. It also protects the child from dangerous situations, especially in traffic.

  • PTSD: service dog: A PTSD service dog interrupts its owner from night terrors, or episode during the day by nudging, bringing medication, or circling his owner to create personal space.

Now that you know what a service dog is don't get left behind.

Here are some fool-proof tips from service dog trainers to answer your 'why' questions.

Why speak to the person first?

Because if you approach the owner for permission first, both dog and owner will feel ready and comfortable to meet you. You can help support our training; speak to the owner first.

Why minimise distractions?

Because distractions can lead to life-threatening situations for a disabled person or child. Yes, assistance dogs are trained to avoid distractions. You can help support our training; avoid talking or calling a service dog.

Why shouldn't you feed a service dog?

Because food is at the top list of ultimate distractions resulting in catastrophic accidents. Yes, service dogs are trained to avoid food. You can help support our training; avoid feeding a service dog.

Why keep your pet a safe distance from a service dog?

Because dogs, and cats are the second/third ultimate distraction for a service dog. Yes, service dogs are trained to avoid your pet. You can help support our training; keep your pet at a safe distance.

Why shouldn't you wake a snoozing service dog?

Service dogs are trained to lay quiet when they're not moving. And, because they work hard all day, it's normal for them to sleep when their owner is sitting or waiting. This doesn't mean they are on a 'break'. You can help support our training; avoid waking a snoozing service dog.

What should you do if you're allergic to dogs?

I understand not everyone has a happy-go-lucky experience around dogs.

But, service dogs go through rigorous training, and tests from 8 weeks until 2 years. Only the best obedient and mild-mannered dogs qualify. If you are afraid or allergic, you can help support our training; be polite and quietly move away.

And there you have it.

Let me know how it went the next time you meet a service dog.

Become a power-up voice of authority for disability

Lack of knowledge, understanding and outdated attitudes are some good reasons why the whole world seems uncertain around people with a disability.

Don't let this be you.

Trust in yourself to build life-changing relationships with disabled people. You are on a mission to attract, energise, and motivate people around you to see disabled people with an open heart; for who they are.

People, like you and me.

I'm ready. Are you?

Interesting in learning more about How to Say Goodbye to Your Extraordinary Guide Dog - The Essential Guide (+ 3 Self Care Tips)?

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