Home > Blog > How to Speak to a Disabled Person With Confidence When the Whole World Seems Uncertain

How to Speak to a Disabled Person With Confidence When the Whole World Seems Uncertain

How to speak to a disabled person

Oh my.

Have you ever felt awkward when you met a disabled person? Have you ever wondered how you should react?

What should you say?

We’ve all been there.

Now, there are many enlightening pieces of advice out there showing you ‘what to do’.

The downside?

Most come in the form of a poster.

They can educate you on the mechanics of disability, what to do, and what not to do.

Read through them, and you can learn how to communicate with a disabled person.

Heck, you might even do something that wins you extra brownie points like helping a blind person cross the street.

But if you dig deeper, if you want to know how to speak from the heart with confidence, cut through the noise, and even become an advocate, you need something better than a hackneyed cliche ‘What to do’ post.

You need a complete guide.

In this post — this complete, step-by-step guide — I’ll share 3 tips used by disability writers to help you connect with disabled people.

You’ll learn the secret to unlocking empathy, creating life-changing relationships, and motivating people to see disabled people with an open heart; for who they are.

People, like you and me.

Sound good?

Let’s get started.

3 trustworthy ways to learn disability-etiquette

1. Understand your hidden fear of disability

Don’t you hate that prickly feeling you get when you sit next to a person with a disability?

It’s a strange feeling, isn’t it?

At first, you begin to feel tense and avoid eye contact. Then you try to shake it off only to have your face flush like a tomato.

Meanwhile, all I can think of is the scene in Wizard of Oz when Dorothy says, ‘Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.’

What do I mean?

Like Dorothy, you’ve entered an unfamiliar and uncomfortable place. This dark place is your self-doubt, your lack of confidence, your fear of being separate from this person and suddenly having to deal with it.

That’s when it hits you.

You’re afraid of disability, and you feel awkward.

Why does this happen?

For one thing, because you don’t see the human being in front of you. You focus too hard on the disability. Then, you label disability as different. Less-able. Fragile. Bad. And, bad is scary.


Well, one thing is for sure:

You’re not alone.

Did you know 1 out of 3 people thinks having a disability makes you less happy and less productive?

But hang on a minute. Where does this come from?

Let me tell you a little story.

When Anna was 5 years old, her dad’s friend came to ask for a guide dog. He was a towering man, with a big face, and cloudy eyes. He used a cane when walking, and wore large dark sunglasses. Anna was scared of him. “Don’t stare at him, it’s rude! Look away!” her grandmother said.

But, she couldn’t help herself. She wanted to stare. Because when you’re a kid, you want to try and understand why someone has a body different from yours. So, Anna grew up afraid of disability. She learned disability is something you don’t acknowledge, it's something to avoid. And, she realized people think that too.

What might surprise you is that I left out a piece of the story.

It’s the part where I was Anna and instead of ignoring disability, my father asked me, ‘Do you know why his eyes are different? ‘Because Petro has an eye disease that stops him from seeing well. His cane helps him to see when he’s moving around. Now, he would like a guide dog to help him zip through the city.'

In short, the more time we spent together the more I learned Petro was a million laughs, not scary.

He taught me all about canes, how a blind person gets around, and even how I can magnify my senses, and see with my ears.

And that’s when the most amazing thing in the world happened.

A glorious seed was planted.

A seed that grew to shape my attitude. My actions. And, my perception of disabled people. A seed that took the place of discrimination, and prejudice, and closed the door to ableism.

And you can plant that seed too!

By now you’ll have realized how you see a disabled person springs from your limiting beliefs. A set of beliefs placing a greater value on non-disabled people, and a lower value on disabled people.

So, when you’re staring, instead of looking away, ask the person next to you the simple question. You’ll be surprised how it will give you permission to engage in conversation and learn that disability is ok.

2. Control the power of words and wipe out ableism

Scope’s new research says, 67 percent of people feel uncomfortable when talking to a disabled person. They fear sounding patronizing, saying the wrong thing, and doing the wrong thing.

If the sight of a disabled person makes you feel uncomfortable, sit with your feeling.

Feel it.

Be a detective, and investigate the root that gives rise to awkwardness, and leads to ableism.

The video below, Things People With Disabilities Wish You Knew, talks about it - Ableism.

As you might expect, ableism is when your belief system says your abilities are superior to a disabled person. It’s when you think disabled people are less than.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.


Because our society wasn’t created with disabled people in mind, and the world we live in, is at its core 'ableist.'

In fact, ableism has been lurking in our belief system for an outrageously long time. It’s the disfigured face of discrimination, the brutal side of social and financial injustice, and the primitive stage of inclusion.

The rotten roots of ableism run deep. They feed off downgrading limiting beliefs.
They invade malnourished parts of our society and twine their way into daily life taking many forms.


Here are a few ways: ​Lack of compliance with disability rights laws

  • Buildings without braille on signs, elevator buttons, etc.
  • Buildings without accessible entrances, rooms, etc.
  • Supermarkets without braille on aisles, or inaccessible entrances
  • Inaccessible websites
  • Refusing to provide reasonable accommodations
  • Refusing to provide access to public transportation
  • Punch-line disability or mocking disabled people
  • The belief disabled people need to be healed
  • Dividing disabled students into separate schools
  • Using restraint and seclusion to control disabled children
  • Exposing disability as inspirational or tragic in news stories, movies, and other popular forms of media
  • Making a movie that doesn’t have an audio description or closed captioning
  • Casting a non-disabled actor to play a disabled character
  • And that’s just part of the story.

Here are some simple, yet powerful examples of ableist actions:

  • Talking to a disabled person like they are a child, or not talking directly to them, or speaking for them
  • Thinking people must have a visible disability to be disabled
  • Questioning if a person is disabled, or ‘how much they are disabled
  • Using a mobility device to lean or rest
  • Choosing an inaccessible place to meet
  • Wearing scented products in a scent-free environment
  • Using the accessible bathroom when you don’t need to
  • Making a movie that doesn’t have an audio description or closed captioning
  • Casting a non-disabled actor to play a disabled character
  • Asking invasive questions about medical history or personal life without permission

What about obnoxious little-known ableist insults?

I know you don’t mean to be insulting. And, you probably have good intentions.

But even your well-meant comments and actions can have a negative effect on a person with a disability.

Little-known ableist insults communicate a negative message about a person’s disability.

Here are some examples of what I’m talking about:

  • “I don’t even think of you as disabled.”
  • “Can I pray for you?”
  • “I’m super OCD about how I clean my house.”
  • “That’s lame.”
  • “You are so retarded.”
  • “Wow! That guy is crazy.”
  • “You’re acting so bipolar today.”
  • “It’s like the blind leading the blind here.”
  • “Her ideas fell on deaf ears.”
  • “He’s such a psycho.”


Can I be painfully honest with you for a moment?

The simple truth is when you speak like this you’re saying a disabled person is less than. You’re communicating disability is bad, and negative, and it’s a problem in need of a fix.

So, how can you communicate in a well-respected way?

How can you speak about accepting disability as a normal, inevitable part of life?

Let me show you.

Let disabled people choose how they want to talk about their disability.

First off, disabled people have the right to choose how they talk about their disability.

Next are 2 ways to bring up disability:

Person-first language (PLF) - you put the Person-first language (PLF). This means you put the word ‘person’ before you mention disability. For example, ‘He is a person who is blind.’

This way you recognize and accept a person who has a disability is, indeed a person.

And get this, it also sends the message of separating the person from the disability.

The point?

You’re respecting the identity of someone with a disability.

Identity-first language (IFL) - here you lead with disability. For example, ‘disabled person’, or ‘She is a blind woman.’

Now, you recognize disability as a piece of their identity.

In short, think of how you feel before you speak, and the kind of message you want to deliver.

Then, like a good friend ask with an open heart, and be fair.

3. Use compassionate disability-inclusive language

Imagine living your whole life explaining to people why the words, and mind-numbing phrases they use are hurtful and offensive to you.

How would you feel?

Let’s be honest, words matter.

Dr Haim Ginott, a children's clinical psychologist dropped the revolutionising truth bomb when he said, ‘How parents and teachers talk tells a child how they feel about him. Their statements affect his self-esteem and self-worth. To a large extent, their language determines his destiny.’ And, this is true for adults too.

The point?

When speaking to a disabled person it's easy to let your fear get the better of you.

Take a deep breath, and become aware you’re speaking to another human.

Then, think about how you feel, and the message you want to deliver.

Not sure how?

I created a simple little 'poster' to help you out.

On one side you’ll find respectful disability-inclusive language, on the other side you’ll find more outdated terms and phrases.

Still, finding yourself stuck for words?

In her blog post, 'There’s More Than One Correct Way to Talk About Disability', Halsey Blocher tells us:

'There isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a blanket terminology that fits everyone in the disability community. We’re all different, and that’s beautiful. We’re stronger because of it.

Halsey Blocher

If you ever need to know how you should talk about someone, ask them what they prefer. That’s the most respectful thing you can do.

Become a power-up voice of authority for disability

Lack of knowledge, understanding, and outdated attitudes are some good reasons why the whole world seems uncertain around people with a disability.

Don't let this be you.

Trust in yourself to build life-changing relationships with disabled people. You are on a mission to attract, energize, and motivate people around you to see disabled people with an open heart; for who they are.

People, like you and me.

I'm ready. Are you?

Clients and Partners