Things You Can Do to Help Disabled People that Don't Cost a Cent (Guest Post)

This list of ways to respect and offer an accessible environment to people with disabilities is reposted with permission from Neurodiversitysci, and includes all comments with attributions.  (Where no attribution is given, the point comes from the original post by Neurodiversitysci; where an attribution is made, it comes from another person).  I've broken the list into a few categories to make for easier reading and corrected some typos.

Neurodiversitysci says, "This list should probably have a huge disclaimer of YMMV [your mileage may vary], since disabled people often have different experiences and live in different social environments with different social barriers. It's pretty much guaranteed some things won't apply to everyone. More importantly, some of the points on the list are based on conditions and experiences I have personally, while others are just based on listening to people."

Also, disabilities (as defined here) include: developmental and learning disabilities (e.g., autism, dyslexia, intellectual disability); chronic illnesses (e.g., MS); mental illness (e.g., depression, Bipolar Disorder, schizophrenia); and physical disabilities (e.g., blindness, deafness, inability to walk).


  • Do not talk about an obviously disabled person in front of them as if they can't hear you.
  • Do not talk to a disabled person's companion instead of them.
  • Ask permission before touching people, or their wheelchairs or other equipment, even if you want to help.
  • Ask permission before touching people's service animals. "Service animals are just that: animals trained to serve the needs of people with disabilities. Please do not distract them from doing their jobs. If you want to pet them or interact with them, ask their owner!" -Lightles
  • Ask disabled people about their lives and really listen to their answers. (Within reason. For example, asking people personal questions about their sex lives is rude unless you're very close to them and they've communicated they're OK with that).
  • Listen to what they say, whether they are speaking, writing, typing, using text to speech, using a letterboard, using PECS, gesturing, using sign language, or using any other form of communication. People who can't speak can still communicate.
  • Understand that "people with disabilities are, first and foremost, people, not saints or martyrs. We have virtues, faults, interests, dreams, and ambitions that have nothing to do with the things our bodies and minds are or are not capable of doing.  Please remember this and treat us accordingly." -Lightles
  • "Don't assume that disabled people...must have miserable/inferior lives. We are different, not lesser." -QueerAutisticMRA
  • Understand that disabled people don't just need friends, they can be friends. [Inspired by Judy Endow].
  • Stand up for people you see getting bullied.
  • When talking to someone who has trouble speaking or stutters, and takes a long time to speak, please wait for them to answer. Don't keep repeating the question or pressure them.  Yes, if you are like me and your mind is going really fast and you forget what people are saying if they take too long, it can be hard to be patient. Do it anyway.
  • When talking to someone who cannot say a word correctly (or at all), it doesn't help to keep asking them to say the word over and over again until they get it right. It will likely frustrate them, and they may still be unable to say the word; in fact, the stress and pressure might make it harder. [Astroayla].  (This point assumes you're not their speech and language therapist.  Even so, there are probably better ways to handle the situation).
  • A disabled person with intellectual disability who has the academic skills or IQ of, say, a 7 year old, does not actually have the mind of a 7 year old.  They have different life experiences, needs, stages of life, bodies, and so on.
  • Understand that a disabled person's talents, however esoteric, are real, not unimportant "splinter skills."
  • "Do not tell anyone with any kind of disability or illness that it's not real. Nothing makes it more apparent that you don't actually care about or respect a person than to tell them that their illness/disability isn't real...Like I'm going to take the words of some guy I barely know over my therapists and doctors." -Wojojojo 
  • Do not tell a person with ADHD or mental illness that they should not be taking medication. This is a personal decision. Furthermore, since medications often have wide-ranging effects on bodies and minds and unpleasant side effects, most people taking medications have thought through the issue, done a cost-benefit analysis, and decided that functioning better is worth it. Their decision should be respected.
  • Conversely, do not tell a person with ADHD or mental illness who is not taking medication that they should be [Suggested by Lichgem and Shinobody].
  •  Not all disabilities are obvious or visible to the naked eye.  This is true for physical, mental, and emotional disabilities.  Sometimes this includes difficulty with things like standing for a long time, and requires accommodations like using the elderly/disabled seats on a train.  Do not assume that someone you see doing this is faking. [Lawless523].  Also, if such a person, without glasses/cane/wheelchair/etc., tells you they have a disability, accept this and treat them with the consideration you would show to a person with an obvious disability. [Lightles].
  • "Think long and hard before complaining about the "special privileges" people with disabilities get. Yes--the parking places reserved for the disabled are closest to the door of your favorite restaurant, but that's because the people who need the space find walking to be difficult, painful, or impossible. The people who use these spaces would almost certainly rather park further away than have to use a wheelchair." -Lightles


  • Recognize that failure to make eye contact does not necessarily mean someone is lying to you. It could simply be uncomfortable for them.
  • Recognize that unwillingness to go to loud, crowded bars does not necessarily mean someone isn't interested in socializing with you. They may simply find the noise and crowds painful, or be unable to understand what you're saying in that sort of environment.
  • Recognize that a person can need time alone and it doesn't mean they're avoiding you.  It's just something they need so they can function at their best.
  • If a person does not recognize you, do not assume they don't care about you. They may be face-blind.
  • If a person does not remember your name, do not assume they don't care about you. They may simply have a bad memory. [Autistic Velociraptor].
  • If a person does not remember your birthday (or other major names, numbers, or dates), don't assume they don't care about you (or whatever it is they've forgotten). They may simply have a bad memory.
  • If someone has difficulty spelling, or using the appropriate jargon/terminology, do not assume they're stupid.  Some people have difficulty with these aspects of language. You may need to paraphrase some "jargon" for them.
  • Understand that a person can be working incredibly hard to do something and may still not perform as well as you'd like them to, as well as the average person would, or as well as the situation demands. They are still trying, and it hurts when you tell them they're not.
  • Recognize that even if a person is unable to respond in a way you can understand, they can still hear you. Don't suddenly start talking about everything you hate about them, or wave your hand in their face. Instead, talk to them the way you normally would. That doesn't mean using an overly exaggerated "I'm pretending everything is normal" voice, which they may be able to see through even though they can't communicate.  It means talking to that person the way you'd talk to anyone else. Although they may not be able to tell you right away, it makes all the difference in the world. "I cried the first time this happened to me. Even my friends had never done it, up to that point." -Youneedacat
  • Colorblindness affects more than just knowing what color something is. To a colorblind person, colors they can't see will look the same if they have the same degree of lightness/darkness, which can change the level of contrast between things. To a red-green colorblind person, for example, a red rose on a green background can blend in instead of contrast starkly, and the Chicago CTA El map can be hard to understand.  Understand that something that stands out and seems obvious to you may literally not be visible to a colorblind person.
  • Understand that for some people, particularly autistic ones, it may be inappropriate to read more into what a person says than what they literally say. "If I ask you to skip a song on your playlist because there's a high noise in it that bugs me, all I am saying is what I just said. I'm not implying that you should let me pick the music. I'm not dissing your taste. I'm saying there's a high noise in that song that bugs me. That's it, that's the whole meaning." -Jumping Jack Trash
  • "Also, when we ask for clarification on something, please provide clarification. It might be obvious to you what you mean, but it might not be to everyone. In the case of humor, we're not trying to spoil the joke. We might even get that you just said something that is supposed to be humorous, but we don't necessarily know WHY it's humorous. That's why we're asking, so we can get the joke next time." -I Has a Politics


  • Every public place does not need to have loud, blaring music and TVs with flashing screens
  • "For the love of God, don't touch people without asking! It may not seem like a big deal to you...[and] I understand sometimes it just happens, rushing and brushing against someone, but some of this is either intentional or could easily be avoided. Not everyone needs or wants a hug from someone they don't know. In fact, it might be a huge stresser." -Nuclear Vampire
  • If you blog, put bright, flashing images that can trigger seizures under a cut so that people with seizures can avoid looking at them.
  • If a job can possibly done without a person driving, don't require candidates to drive or have a driver's license.  Don't interview candidates and then reject them because they can't or don't drive.  Lots of people with disabilities cannot drive safely, including those with low vision, slow reflexes/response time, and some with autism or ADHD.
  • If you are talking to a deaf person, make it easier for them to lip-read by facing towards them while looking at them, and not covering your mouth with your hands.
  • If you are talking to someone with hearing impairment or auditory processing disorder, it is more helpful to slow down, face them, or rephrase what you're saying than to just speak more loudly.
  • Some disabled people have difficulty understanding nonliteral language such as metaphors and idioms (e.g., "a stitch in time saves nine"). If you're talking to someone like this, try explaining what you mean by these figures of speech, or just avoid them. Also, if nonliteral jokes confuse or upset them, you should avoid them and especially avoid using these jokes on purpose to make fun of them [Antimone Grey].
  • If you're talking to someone who has difficulty understanding nonliteral language, do not use only nonliteral language to convey your point. "Say what you mean...don't use hints, implications, analogies, hyperbole, or metaphor in place of actual information. Whether analogies, hyperbole, etc. can help in illustrating your point depends on the individual; many of us are fine with figurative language in a lot of cases, especially if we have context to place the phrase in. But if you want us to know a thing, tell us the thing itself instead of or in addition to talking around it." -Jumping Jack Trash


  • Don't tell them "but you look so normal!" Or "you don't look like [x]." It will not be taken as a compliment. [Rosslyn Paladin].  But, if they accomplish something you know they were working really hard to do, it's great to compliment them on it.
  • "Don't tell someone they're 'not really ___' because they don't have something in common with the average ___. For example, I'm not bothered by loud jittering noises; in fact, anybody who knows my taste in music knows that I love them, but that doesn't make me 'not autistic' because some people who are also autistic ARE bothered by jittering noises...not everyone with a disability is the same." -Blind Skywatcher
  • "Please don't ask if they are getting better, or will get better." -Little Red Chucks.  Most disabilities and chronic illnesses are permanent, while mental illnesses tend to be long lasting, and even if a person recovers, can recur over the course of a person's life.
  • "Please do not assume that a child's disability is the fault of their parents or carers." -Little Red Chucks.  Except for genetics (e.g., a disabled parent having a child with the same disability) or extremely rare and specific cases, like Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, a child's disability is not their parents' or caretakers' fault. 
  • If someone has a major medical problem, disability, or chronic illness, then just eating some special healthy diet or exercising more isn't going to cure it. It might help, it might hurt, it might do nothing, but the person has probably heard the advice before, and unless you're their doctor, it's none of your business in any case.
  • A person with OCD knows that checking or counting or whatever compulsive action they perform won't really prevent disaster from happening, it's just a compulsion. That doesn't stop them from feeling the need to do it anyway. A person with anxiety may know that at least some of their fears are irrational or unlikely to occur. That doesn't stop them from feeling anxious. A person with trichotillomania may know it hurts them to pull out their hair or pick at their skin, but they have difficulty stopping themselves anyway. A depressed person may know that they would feel better if they got out of their house and talked to people, but that doesn't make them feel any more up to doing those things. A person who hallucinates may know the hallucinations aren't real, but that doesn't make them go away or feel less upsetting. Do you see the pattern? You can't cure people with mental illnesses by telling them they're being irrational or hurting themselves. If it were that easy, they'd have cured themselves already.
  • Telling people they're inspirational simply for living their lives or getting out of the house is not a compliment. It's telling them that you think their lives are so unbearably awful that just living is an inspiration--which is insulting. It's different to tell them you admire them if they do something truly impressive, or that you know is hard for them personally and they worked hard to accomplish it.
  • Accept stimming.
  • "Do not play the "how many fingers am I holding up?" game with a blind or visually impaired person. It's just rude." -Lightles
  • Disabled people having a meltdown look like they're throwing a tantrum or being aggressive, but they are not. People can have anger meltdowns [Blackwinged Rose], but people assume all meltdowns are about anger, and that's not necessarily true--they're often caused by terror.  Having a meltdown means a person has gone into fight or flight. The best thing you can do is remain calm yourself and help them calm down. It may help to keep your distance, keep your voice low and calm, let them retreat to a safe place if they know to do that, or remind them to do so if they forget.  Reasoning with them won't work well because they're unlikely to be able to hear and understand you. The worst thing you can do is start yelling yourself, threatening them, be violent to them, cut off their escape route, or get right up in their personal space.
  • Most of all: even the identical disability affects different people differently. The preferences of the specific person you're interacting with take priority over any generalized rules, including this list! "There's no catch all method to treat every disabled person appropriately to their own desires. Just try to exercise the best judgment you can and ask before assuming. They often appreciate your intentions even if your assistance isn't needed. They're a lot more capable than people give them credit for." -Spud Fuzz

Comments are welcome, and further ideas will be added to this list. Advice relating to physical or intellectual disabilities would be particularly welcome.

No comments:

Post a Comment