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Disability Etiquette

Civility and kindness are not genetically linked to respect. Neither can be manufactured. Respect for the commonalities and the differences we each share establish a true community where learning can occur. Teachable moments can and do happen in hallways on campus, on the steps of buildings, in and out of the classroom, and in dorm residences.

Some may be curious that a prescribed manner of speaking to or working with individuals with disabilities is preferred; after all, we’re all simply people and words are simply words. Nevertheless, it’s all quite basic if we remember that we are all people so that putting the person first, followed by the disability, is respectful. In other words, student with a learning disability, student who uses a wheelchair, student with a chronic illness acknowledges the human being with whatever in life that person is living with, or using to assist them get from point A to point B. Knowing specifically what diagnosis has been charged to an individual really doesn’t matter, unless you are the person responsible for diagnosing and treating the disability.

All of this said, however, respect is not one-sided. Students with disabilities – people with disabilities – have the same responsibility to others as those without a disability. There are some basic tips to help us create a rhythm of acceptance when working, talking, or living with a person with a disability:

  • Address the person by their name, if you know it
  • Maintain eye contact with the person with whom you are speaking, even if that person is blind, deaf and using an interpreter, or using a wheelchair.
  • Do not make reference to the person’s disability, particularly in a classroom, office setting, or any public venue
  • When trying to help a person go through a doorway, cross the street, pushing a button in an elevator, ask the person first if they require assistance and do not be surprised if the person says, “no, thanks – I can do that on my own.” Maintaining small pieces of independence is very often necessary for someone who has been presented with limitations because of a disability. In the same respect, persons with disabilities should accept the fact that asking for assistance does not mean relinquishing independence in one’s life – saying instead, “sure, thank you”, with a smile is courteous.
  • When someone is holding onto a door, they may be using the door for physical support. So, if you push ahead, thinking you are helping, that person may lose balance and could fall. Always ask.
  • When a student reaches out to their professor about needing to discuss their reasonable accommodations for a class, do not mock, state anything aloud about disabilities, or say anything which might cause embarrassment to the student. Students have been advised to meet with their instructors during office hours, privately, and to discuss the reasonable accommodations established by the Office of Disability Services. If an instructor does not have office hours, please provide the class with contact information so that such a meeting can occur in a discrete and professional setting. If you have questions or concerns about any reasonable accommodation and for which the student has no answer, do not berate the student, phone the Office of Disability Services instead.
  • If you receive a phone call which starts out, “this is operator 3437 with a relay call…”, do not hang up. A person who is deaf or hard of hearing is trying to contact you using a TTY and a relay operator and, except for e-mail, is the only way for a person deaf or hard of hearing to make contact if off-campus. 711 is the relay phone message number to make a call to a student deaf or hard of hearing. You simply dial 9-1-711 followed by the person’s TTY number and are connected to a relay operator. Conversely, if the person using the TTY phones in, an operator is reading what the person who is deaf is typing on the TTY and relaying that information to the person receiving the call. To respond to the message, speak slowly so that the operator can type the information to the person using the TTY and when you are finished with your response state “go ahead”. Then wait for the response from the person phoning. This may take some time. You may be asked to repeat or to slow down so that the correct information is being transmitted. Since American Sign Language (ASL) and English are not the same – different syntax, for example, it may take the person deaf or hard of hearing a bit more time to read your message coming through from the operator. Be patient. To spend less time clarifying responses be brief and clear in your communication. 
  • Some individuals with disabilities require service animals. Animals are trained to work and are not to be petted or spoken to by anyone except the person requiring the animal’s service. Only service animals are permitted on campus. Comfort dogs, or other pets, are prohibited from being on campus.
  • Individuals with learning disabilities are typically of very high intellect, requiring delivery of information in an alternate way. This is not reflective of that person’s ability to think or to excel. 

One in 11 students on college campuses today has a disability. Understanding, acceptance, and working with students centered on learning is all that is expected.

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