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People first language tips 

Overview

Perceptions, prejudices, and attitudinal barriers are the first and most formidable barriers that persons with disabilities face when attempting to participate fully in society.

Historically, people with disabilities have been stereotyped in many different ways. Some of the stereotypes used to label people with disabilities persist in the mind of the public today. Incomplete information, mistaken perceptions, isolation and segregation have perpetuated many of these stereotypes. Viewing a person with a disability or groups of persons with disabilities according to stereotypes limits what we expect of them and how we respond to them.

Fortunately, the negative stereotypes and attitudinal barriers are being replaced by a more positive view of people with disabilities as individuals, entitled to full protection, rights, and privileges under the law. They are also entitled to the same services, opportunities, and benefits afforded other persons.


Stereotypes
  • Menace to society - Between 1870 and 1925, persons with disabilities were chiefly seen as contributing to the decline of civilization. People with mental retardation in particular were viewed as threats to society. This view led to segregation, imprisonment, persecution, and dehumanization of thousands of people. Placement in large custodial settings, or "asylums" as they were called then, was common. Sterilization was widely used as a means of preventing people with mental retardation from reproducing.
  • Inferior - Some people believe that a person with a disability is a "second class citizen" not entitled to the same rights and privileges as a person without a disability.
  • Incapable - A person with a disability is often considered incapable of accomplishing a task without given an opportunity to display his/her skills.
  • Hero; special - Some people consider someone with a disability who lives independently and/or is employed as brave or special for overcoming their disability.
  • Object of ridicule - The appearance of a person with a disability in "freak shows" and circuses illustrates this point. Historical novels sometimes depict people with disabilities as fools, court jesters, and clowns.
  • Object of pity or charity – People feel sorry for a person with a disability which can lead to patronizing attitudes. Until recently, services ranging from education to clothing were given to people with disabilities out of pity or a sense of charity. It was not uncommon for people with disabilities to have to beg for survival. A person with a disability was not expected to work or live independently.
  • Eternal child - The most common present misconception of people who have mental retardation and persons with many other types of disabilities is that they are children forever. The tendency is to expect them to behave like children.
  • Sick - Still common today, is the view of a person with a disability as sick often mentally ill. This has led to an emphasis on medical treatment in hospital settings. Although it is unrealistic to expect most disabilities to be totally overcome or cured, some disabilities such as epilepsy can be treated or controlled by drugs. All people with disabilities can be helped through the delivery of better services and more opportunities to assist them in becoming as independent as possible.
  • Subhuman - This view is still encountered today, particularly where people with severe disabilities are concerned. Such persons are often referred to as "animals" or "vegetables."

 ​Attitudes
  • Fear - Many people fear they will say or do the wrong thing and, therefore, avoid people with disabilities.
  • Backlash - People believe that individuals with disabilities are given unfair advantages.
  • Denial - "Hidden" disabilities are not "real" disabilities that require accommodation.
  • Spread effect - People assume that a person with a disability is totally impaired. For example, people may talk loudly to a person who is blind.

Myths About Job Corps Students With Disabilities

Replacing myths, like those below, with a more positive view of students with disabilities on Job Corps centers takes time, patience, and understanding. Positive staff attitudes and the presence of students with disabilities on center participating in the program to the same level as their peers should help the process.

  • Students with disabilities cannot be taught a vocation - especially something that requires a skill - This is not true. Each student with a disability is an individual with certain abilities. The focus should be on what the individual can do, not limited by what he/she cannot. For instance, a student with a cognitive disability may have weaknesses in traditional academic areas, but do well in other areas. For example, this student may do well in carpentry, but have trouble reading. The key is to provide the student with the training he/she needs to match both their abilities and interests.
  • Students with disabilities cannot make academic gains - With reasonable accommodation, the student may make academic gains in language or math.
  • All students with disabilities have low mental abilities - Becoming disabled due to an accident or the loss of hearing, speech, or limbs does not mean the loss of mental ability.
  • Students with disabilities will miss a lot of time from class - This is not true. With the proper medications, treatment, and/or counseling, most students with disabilities will miss no more, and often less time than students without disabilities.

Basic Etiquette​

The rules for interacting appropriately with people with disabilities are the same as for any other person. In other words, always treat a person with a disability just like you would want to be treated - with respect and courtesy. The "tips" suggested in this module address specific issues that may arise when interacting with people with different kinds of disabilities. Since everyone is different, these "tips" may not hold true for all individuals.

Keep in mind that knowing how to react appropriately in every situation requires time and practice. As with all other etiquette issues, when mistakes are made, apologize, correct the problem, learn from the mistake, move on–do not be discouraged, and above all, keep trying. Offering center-wide training in disability awareness/basic etiquette will allow staff to refer, interact, and respond appropriately to people with a variety of disabilities. There are many organizations (see the web resources section at the bottom of this page) that may be able to assist the center with disability awareness training by either providing materials, technical assistance, or conducting an actual training.

  • Any and all assistive devices (canes, wheelchairs, crutches, communication boards, etc.) should always be respected as personal property. Unless given specific and explicit permission, do not move, play with, or use them.
  • When introduced to a person with a disability, it is appropriate to offer to shake hands. People with limited hand use or those who wear an artificial limb can usually shake hands. Shaking hands with the left hand is an acceptable greeting.
  • Always direct your communication to the individual with a disability. If they are accompanied, do not direct your comments to the companion.
  • Avoid portraying people with disabilities as non-sexual. People with disabilities are capable of establishing loving relationships and expressing the same sexual needs and desires as non-disabled people.
  • Do not focus on the disability, but on the individual and the issue at hand.
  • Be considerate of the extra time it may take for a person with a disability to move around or complete a task.
  • If you are uncertain about what to do, ask. Most people would rather answer a question about protocol than be in an uncomfortable situation.
  • Do not worry about what to call someone. All people with disabilities have names.
  • Remember that people with disabilities are interested in the same topics of conversation as non-disabled people.
  • Use a normal speaking tone and style. If someone needs you to speak in a louder voice, he/she will ask you to do so.
  • Remember that people with disabilities, like all people, are experts on themselves. They know what they like, what they do not like, and what they can and cannot do.
  • People with disabilities in Job Corps program are there because they want to become employable and independent. Ensure that your attitudes and the attitudes of other staff/students do not prevent this.
  • Relax. Don't be embarrassed if you happen to use common expressions such as "see you later" that seem to relate to the person's disability.​

Cognitive Disabilities or Intellectual Disabilities

  • Use clear language that is concise and to the point.
  • Avoid clichés and idiomatic usages, unless someone is clearly familiar with the terms.
  • Do not "talk down" to a person with an intellectual disability.
  • "Walk through" the steps of a task or project. Let an individual perform each part of the task after you explain it.
  • Assume that an adult with an intellectual disability has had the same experiences as any other adult.
  • Use pictures or simple photographs to identify rooms, tasks, or directions.
  • Treat the individual as you would anyone else. If engaging in a conversation with someone with an intellectual disability, bring up the same topics of conversation as you would with anyone else such as weekend activities, vacation plans, the weather, or recent events.
  • Direct your comments, questions, and concerns regarding a person with an intellectual disability or a cognitive disability to that individual. Remember that persons with an intellectual disability or cognitive disabilities are legally competent. They can sign documents, vote, give consent to medical care, and sign contracts.

Mobility Impairments

  • Remember that a wheelchair is part of an individual's "personal space." Do not lean on it, push it, or rest your feet on it without explicit permission.
  • Always ask if you can offer assistance before you provide assistance. If your offer of assistance is accepted, ask for instructions and follow those that are given to you.
  • When given permission to push a wheelchair, push slowly at first. Wheelchairs can pick up momentum quickly.
  • Personally check locations of events for accessibility. Use a checklist. Alert persons with mobility impairments of potential problems or barriers if they can't be removed before the event.
  • Do not ask people how they acquired their disability, how they feel about it, or other personal questions unless it is clear that someone may want to discuss it. It is not their job to educate you.
  • Do not pat an individual who uses a wheelchair on the back or on the head.
  • If possible, sit down so that you are at eye level.
  • Remember that, in general, persons with mobility impairments are not deaf, visually impaired, or cognitively impaired. The only accommodations that you need to make are those that relate to mobility impairment.

Visual Impairments

  • Offer the use of your arm. Do not clutch the person's arm or steer the individual. Walk as you normally would.
  • Do not be offended if your offer to assist a visually impaired person is declined.
  • Give a person with visual impairment a brief description of the surroundings.
  • Use descriptive phrases that relate to sound, smell, and distance when guiding a visually impaired person.
  • Guide dogs are working animals and should not be treated as pets. Do not give the dog instructions, play with, or touch him/her.
  • Do not grab or try to steer the cane of a person with visual impairments.
  • Always ask, do not assume which format a person with visual impairments prefers information (e.g., braille, large print, or audiotape).
  • Direct your comments, questions or concerns to the person with a visual impairment, not to his/her interpreter or companion.
  • If you are reading for a person with visual impairment, first describe the information to be read. Use a normal speaking voice. Do not skip information unless requested to do so.
  • Always identify yourself by name.

Deaf/Hard of Hearing

  • Always look directly at a person with hearing loss.
  • Do not obscure you face and mouth.
  • There is a wide range of hearing losses and communication methods. Ask, if you do not know the individual's preferred communication method.
  • To get the attention of a person with a hearing loss, call his/her name. If there is no response, you can lightly touch him/her on the arm or shoulder.
  • Speak clearly and evenly. Do not exaggerate your speech.
  • If you are asked to repeat yourself several times, try rephrasing your sentence.
  • When providing information that involves a number or an address, consider alternative ways to provide it; writing, faxing, texting, or e-mailing are great ways to ensure accuracy and decrease frustration.
  • If you are experiencing extreme difficulty communicating orally, ask if you can write. Never say, "Oh, forget it, it is not important." Keep messages simple and direct.
  • Be aware of the environment. Large and crowded rooms and hallways can be very difficult for deaf/hard of hearing persons. Bright sunlight and shadows also present barriers. Do not change the topic of conversation without warning. Use transitional phrases such as "Okay, now we need to discuss..."

Speech Impairments

  • Do not ignore persons with speech impairments because of your concerns that you will not understand them, or they will not understand you.
  • Do not interrupt a person with a speech impairment. Speak only when you are certain that he or she has finished speaking.
  • Do not attempt to rush a conversation. Plan for a conversation with a person with impaired speech to take longer.
  • Face the individual and maintain eye contact. Give the conversation your full attention.
  • If the individual is accompanied by another individual, do not address questions, comments, or concerns to the companion.
  • Do not pretend you understand what is being said if you do not.
  • Do not assume that a person with a speech impairment is incapable of understanding you.
  • Some people with speech impairments have difficulty with inflections. Do not make assumptions based on facial expressions or vocal inflections unless you know the individual very well.
  • Do not play with or try to use someone's communication device. Such communication aids are considered an extension of an individual's "personal space" and should be respected as such.
  • If you are having trouble communicating, ask if an individual can use a computer or TDD.

Psychiatric Disabilities

  • Do not assume that people with psychiatric disabilities necessarily need any extra assistance or different treatment.
  • Treat people with psychiatric disabilities as individuals. Do not make assumptions based on experiences you have had with other people with psychiatric disabilities.
  • Do not assume that people with psychiatric disabilities are more likely to be violent than people without psychiatric disabilities; this is a myth.
  • Do not assume that all people with psychiatric disabilities take medication or should take medication.
  • Do not assume that all people with psychiatric disabilities are not capable of signing contracts or giving consent for medical treatment. Many are legally competent.
  • Do not assume that people with psychiatric disabilities also have cognitive disabilities or are less intelligent than the general population.
  • Do not assume that people with psychiatric disabilities are not capable of working in a wide variety of jobs which require a wide range of skills and abilities.
  • Do not assume that people with psychiatric disabilities do not know what is best for them or have poor judgment.
  • If someone with a psychiatric disability gets upset, ask calmly if there is anything you can do to help and then respect their wishes.
  • Do not assume that a person with a psychiatric disability is unable to cope with stress.

 Job Corps Resources

Web Resources

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