COLUMN: Disability etiquette is really ‘everyone’ etiquette


There are 40 million people with disabilities in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, with the number increasing annually due to advances in health care.

Marty GoldbergThe same is true for the number of students with disabilities who are in mainstream education and ultimately pursue higher education. In higher education, 11.1 percent of the current U.S. student population has a disability, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Disabilities can be both physical and “hidden” — less apparent to others and, in some cases, more challenging to accommodate if the individual is afraid of appearing “different.” Instructors and administrators also may be unfamiliar with strategies or resources to help those with “hidden” disabilities.

Accommodating students and others with disabilities is as much about institutional culture and climate as it is about modifying the physical or web environment or the way we teach. Instead of raising awareness of disability etiquette, let’s discuss “everyone” etiquette. Here at the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, we strive to make everyone be a part of the community, where no group or person is singled out, but included into every part of our fabric. 

Here are some “everyone etiquette” tips, adapted from the United Spinal Association:

  • Be sensitive about physical contact as this may disrupt balance or make someone feel uncomfortable.
  • Think before you speak — if a person is accompanied by an aide, they likely do not need that person to communicate to or for them. Look and speak to the person directly.
  • Don’t make assumptions about what someone can, or especially can’t do.
  • Respond graciously to requests, especially relating to accommodations.
  • Put the person first when describing him or her, e.g., “person with autism” instead of “autistic person.”
  • Remember assistive technology and a person’s service animal are an extension of the person and their personal space. Never touch a device or animal without asking first.
  • Keep items accessible and in reach, especially in laboratory courses. You may consider adding height-adjustable tables that function as great workspaces for many activities.
  • Keep accessible travel paths clear of obstructions.
  • Identify yourself when speaking to a person with low-vision or blindness, especially prior to physical contact, and if you would like to help guide this person, remember to offer your arm instead of grabbing his or her arm.
  • Follow a person with a hearing impairment’s cues to find out if she or he prefers sign language, gesturing, writing or speaking, and when necessary, help to arrange an interpreter. Pitt has its own service, more info can be found here. Always speak clearly and do not obscure your face.
  • If someone with a speech impairment is speaking to you and you do not understand, it’s perfectly OK to ask them to repeat. You may offer to move to a quieter space or suggest a pen and paper if you continue to have difficulty communicating.
  • If someone looks different than you, don’t stare! Everyone needs to have a positive self-image to be a fully participating member of society. Be sure that you don’t contribute to stigmatizing people who look different.
  • Last but not least, ALWAYS ask before you help!   

If you are interested in learning more about how to better support students with disabilities on campus, you may be interested in my free, on-demand course on Coursera, Disability Accommodations and Support. It is not only for administrators or faculty, but also students so that they can serve as better advocates for themselves or others. You also may be interested in learning more and participating in this great organization on campus, Students for Disability Advocacy.

Mary Goldberg is an assistant professor and Jon Duvall is a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences’ Department of Rehabilitation Science and Technology and the Human Engineering Research Laboratories.