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Language Basics

  1. Person First Language is recommended when referring to a person with a disability. Example: Do say, “a person with a disability” and do NOT say, “a disabled person.”
  2. Euphemism or Patronizing language is overly politically correct or nice language and should be avoided. Example: Do NOT say, “differently abled” or “he/she is challenged.”
  3. Open dialogue is a discourse between two people and the first step to effectively communicating needs between those two people.
  4. Public dialogue is an informal or formal group dialogue with the goal of resolving issues, and developing empathy and understanding.
  5. Group Internal use of Stigmatized Terms refers to the idea of “reclaiming” terms with which were previously considered negative. (e.g. a support group for women with disabilities called Gimp Girl, founded by a woman with a disabilities). You should NOT use such language unless you are a member of that community or are invited to.

Assisting a person with a disability

  1. Questions to ask before helping someone with a disability? Consider the accessibility of an environment or helping someone without physical contact and accessible materials for those with various disabilities.
  2. Tips to helping some with a disability can be specific to the person with disability. Check out the tips below and put yourself in their shoes.

In the Classroom/Hybrid/Online

  1. Teachers communicating with students with disabilities can be difficult depending on the specific kind of disability. Starting an “open dialogue” and reviewing the tips below are a great start.
  2. Persons with disability communicating with their teachers should begin on the first day of class and contacting Student Disability Resources will allow for class content to be universally design for all the students’ needs. All students can benefit from this.

Language Basics

Person First language

In order to provide focus on the person versus his or her disability, it is recommended that “person-first” language be used to refer to someone who may have a particular disability. Thus, the expression “a person with a disability” is preferred to “disabled person.” Similarly, the expression “person who uses a wheelchair” is generally preferred to “wheelchair bound”. The use of “person first” language has become a practice of etiquette and more importantly respect for people with disabilities.

NEVER use a disability as an adjective. Calling a person “disabled,” “handicapped,” or identifying them solely by their disability, such as “the deaf guy” or “a blind person” associates them with ONLY their disability and not as a person. Another example, wheelchair bound or confined to a wheelchair is a negative verbalization of a wheelchair. The wheelchair enables them to be mobile and gives a person access to the environment, so the person is a person that uses a wheelchair and not a wheelchair user.

Euphemism or Patronizing language

A euphemism is patronizing or overly politically correct language, such as saying, “He/she is challenged.” The use of the word “challenged” is the euphemism. This is sometimes referred to as “Nice” language. Other examples of this are saying someone is “differently abled.” When using patronizing language, there is emphasis placed on the disability with a connotation of inferiority as person. Every person is capable of achieving a goal and uses various tools to do so. People with disabilities use tools to achieve those goals, such tools as wheel chairs, canes, various technologies and other assistive devices or technologies.

Open dialogue

Open dialogue is an open discourse between two people to meet a consensual and mutual understanding between each other. This discourse should allow for freedom to ask questions, bring forth requests freely, and be mutually receptive and non-judgmental about the topic of the dialogue.

Initiating “open dialogue” with students, friends, coworkers or anyone for that matter is the first step to building communication. This allows for needs and concessions to be arranged for everyone to follow.

Students should approach teachers and clarify if the teacher understands any needs or concessions. A student should understand the perspective of the teacher. The teacher has a large number of students to attend to. So, the student needs to make a teacher aware of their needs.

Also, teachers should take the initiative and check with their students, especially if a student is identified with a disabilities. Each student has a differing set of abilities and differing concessions are necessary based on those abilities. Exploring these concessions should be done privately between the teacher and student and both should feel free to initiate discourse to achieve a mutual goal.

Public dialogue

Initiating “open dialogue” and engaging in “public dialogue” are very different. Public dialogue usually takes place in a formal or informal setting discussing the topic in a group or social group. The goal here is to gain understanding and develop solutions to communicating and understanding each other’s needs. Understanding each other’s perspectives on the subject of disabilities can be hard for those with a disability and without. No one wants to be mean, make someone feel bad for not understanding how to respect each other’s feelings and needs. So, those persons with a disability and those interacting with persons with disabilities should be careful not to have judgmental behavior. A “public dialogue” can be an opportunity to learn from each other and gain empathy for each other’s feelings and perspectives and develop solutions to help everyone feel comfortable.

Group Internal Use of Stigmatized Terms

You may find people with disabilities using or “reclaiming” terms which were previously considered negative. For example, there is a support group for women with disabilities called Gimp Girl ( Another example is the use of Deaf with a capital D to describe the community of sign language speakers.

In many cases though, a person NOT belonging to that community may want to be cautious about using the term until advised to by a member that community.

Assisting a person with a disability

Questions you should ask yourself before helping those with disabilities:

  • Is the environment accessible? Assessing the surroundings from a perspective of the person with the disability is difficult. You are not he or she and may never understand their perspective completely. But, there are tips to help offer some foresight to the situation.
  • Are you able to give help without physically touching the person or entering their space or comfort zone?
  • Are classroom materials accessible for the students’ needs?

Assessing the needs is done both by the person with the disability and the faculty or staff providing the concessions. This leads to being sensitive about the environment, physical contact or how content is provided.

Here are some tips:

  • Do not pat someone on the head or touch a cane, wheelchair or other tools that they use. As in the previous example, having a table in the classroom available for the student and not desks with attached chairs may be an issue.
  • If you are going to offer assistance, ask them how they would like that assistance to be given.
  • Also, be mindful about moving furniture and providing a pathway. Keep in mind clearance and consistency of furniture placement. This allows access for those with who need mobility access due to the use of a wheelchair or a person with vision impairment.
  • Think before speaking and use “Person-First” language as explained in the Language Basics.
  • Do not grab someone’s arm or touch someone at all without permission, this may startle them. Is this normally done to you? If you would like to gain someone’s attention, tap on a surface near them or make your presence known verbally and without touching their persons. Remember, for those who are vision impaired/blind verbally identifying yourself is the best practice.
  • Offer and only push a wheelchair when requested. If possible, try to sit at eye level with a person in a wheelchair. This removes any perception of speaking down to a person in a wheelchair and this action reduces the kink in the neck of a person who uses a wheelchair.

In the Classroom/Hybrid/Online

Teachers communicating with students with disabilities

  • Behave naturally as if you would with any other person.
  • Always talk to a person directly even if an assistant or interpreter is present.
  • Speaking at their physical level, if in a wheel chair sit and hold a conversation at eye level.
  • Avoid making assumptions to students’ needs or abilities. This goes for all students. There are students with hidden disabilities.
  • Respond to the requests when made in a reasonable amount of time.

For further information, please visit the Student Disability Resources web site:

  • In the classroom the environment and the class activities play a big role. For example, the user of a wheelchair may need the classroom arranged to sit and participate with other students. This may be an issue if the classroom is full of desks with tables attached to the chairs. A student who is blind/vision impaired/deaf may need to sit near the front or be guided to a seat. Furthermore, breaking out into a group project and shifting chairs may cause unforeseen issues for some. If there are any doubts initiate an “open dialogue” with your student.

Persons with disability communicating with teachers

Students with disabilities should start an “open dialogue” with teachers at the beginning of the course. Not to seek special attention, but to allow the teacher to make the curriculum universally accessible for all students and allow teachers to actively engage in best practices for online, hybrid or in class teaching. These alternative resources may benefit the other students in the class, also.

Students are also advised to contact Student Disability Resources at their local campus. Student Disability Resources has been established to help students who need accommodations, particularly extended times for assignments or exams, receive them in the most efficient and timely manner possible.

Communicating in the Workplace

For detailed information and inquiries may be found at:


Final Note

Remember to approach disability language as a language of “Empowerment”!

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