Back to top

Disability Etiquette

4 September 2017

By Thuthula Sodumo

Many people are not familiar with disability and this makes it hard for them to relate and interact with people with disabilities.

Disability is not a one size fits all. Some disabilities are not visible – such as mental disabilities. It is an individual issue so when assisting someone you must always keep that in mind.


Some people are concerned that they may offend or approach people with disabilities inappropriately and that may result in a misunderstanding. There are dos and don’ts on how to approach people with disabilities.The first don’t is not to assume that you know what is best for a person with a disability.

“I have been working in the rehabilitation and physical disability field for over 25 years and I have learned to really listen to my clients,” says Clare Hubbard, an occupational therapist based in Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape.

“Their lived experience of a situation and their difficulties are unique to them, and if a therapist imposes what they think the person wants, it often does not meet the clients’ own needs at that time. I believe that the client is an expert in ‘themselves’, in their occupations which make them unique, and often they have enormous capacity for solutions, even when they have few resources, but just need the therapist to facilitate and support their action,” Hubbard says.The first rule is to never assume anything.

Ask before you help. Just because someone has a disability, do not assume they need help. Some people want to be treated as independent people.

When help has been accepted, wait for instructions on how to assist.

“I have had people try and help and I would tell them not to touch me in a certain way and they would do it anyway and tell me how they know someone like me and how they help them this way,” says Andiswa Maselana, a 32-year-old who suffers from muscular dystrophy. Because of the severity of the disease she cannot transfer herself in and out of her wheelchair so she needs help.

“People think when they see one person with a disability then it means they’ve seen them all. Sometimes you feel like they are touching you inappropriately on purpose – because really, when you are helping lift someone up, how does your hand find their private parts? The comments they make as they are helping also make you feel bad about your situation,” says Maselana.

Not all disabilities are visible. Chances are, you will not even notice that a person has a disability.

When assisting a person with a hearing impairment, for example, let them establish how they want to communicate – lip reading, sign language or writing down notes. Always talk directly to the person even when the interpreter is present. Always try and simplify your sentences so they can lip read. They can also read your body language and facial expressions. There is absolutely no reason to shout or make dramatic gestures. Shouting distorts your words.

Some people with visual impairments need to be guided in order to manoeuvre some places. Please do not just grab them and pull them to wherever they need to go. Allow them to take your arm, and then guide them. Do not rush as they need to familiarise themselves with the envornment.

It is often difficult to notice that a person has a mental or intellectual disability. As you interact with an individual and notice the strange behaviour that may be disability related, act graciously and think before you speak and act. Try to be as precise as possible when communicating .Give them a chance to show or tell you what they want. Stay focused on them as they try to communicate with you.

When assisting people with disabilities that affect their speech, always show patience and understanding as it might be difficult to understand them.

“I always meet people who see me as normal on first glance but as soon as I start talking they always lose interest because of my slurred speech,” says Abongile Mbangi, a 30-year-old who has dyskinetic cerebral palsy.

“Some would look down on their watches as if they are timing me. Sometimes they just nod and I can tell they do not understand a word I am saying. Then they do the worst and finish sentences for me. I hate that, it has caused me to fear communicating with anyone I haven’t known for too long,” Mbangi says.

The most important thing is to treat people as individuals and as human beings.

Respect their wishes at all times. Should you offer to assist and your offer is refused, do not take it personally. Independence means a great deal to people with disabilities. These are informal guidelines that have been developed in the disabled community over the years. If you are unsure on what to do and scared to directly ask the person with a disability, you can check the internet and visit some NGOs that deal with people with disabilities.

The best way though, is ask the individual. Remember, mindfulness matters.


Please visit the official Government information portal for Coronavirus by clicking HERE

Skip to content