Disability Language and Etiquette: An Overview

Purple View Point

Purple believe in 2017 issues of language and etiquette remains the biggest barriers for individuals and businesses in engaging with disabled people. The fear of saying or doing something that unintentionally causes offence to a disabled person, leads many people to swerve the conversation altogether.

Without a conversation it is very difficult for a business to employ someone. Without a conversation it is difficult to sell products and services to disabled consumers.

Purple believe the root issue is one of misplaced perception. 99% of disabled people will not be concerned if it’s not quite right, but will understand the context in which the message was delivered.

Our advice is to be brave and bold and engage in conversation – you will find it is much easier than you thought.


  • When we refer to ‘disability language’, this is about the terminology people feel they can say, or not, around disability.
  • ‘Disability etiquette’ is more about behaviours and your interactions with disabled people
  • The key message is to be yourself and don’t change the way you talk or behave just because you are engaging with a disabled person, and you will be fine.

Advice & Guidance

  • Focus on the name and not the label. Don’t worry about the disability and just talk and behave as you would to anybody else
  • In terms of language try to avoid passive, victim words e.g. suffering from etc. Use language that respects disabled people as individuals with control over their lives
  • As a society we don’t use the terms handicapped or refer to ‘the disabled’. But whether it is a disabled person or person with a disability doesn’t really matter. Nor does saying:
    • To a blind person ‘it is great to see you’
    • To a deaf person ‘did you hear about…’
    • To an amputee ‘I have to hand it to you’
    • To a wheelchair user ‘let’s go for a walk’
  • As outlined above it is fine to use every day phrases but try to avoid common phrases they may associate disability with negative things. For example, ‘blind drunk’, or ‘deaf to our pleas’
  • Continue to use your normal voice tone – don’t go up an octave or start to talk in a manner that might sound patronising; address disabled people in a way in which you would address anyone else – refer to them by name; and never try to finish someone’s sentence for them. Regardless of disability etiquette we all know how infuriating that behaviour is when it happens to us.
  • As a business you might want to produce a short note on language and etiquette for staff to act as an aide memoir and build confidence in disability engagement – have it available in resources to staff and perhaps on your intranet but don’t make it a big issue
  • Ensure language and etiquette is part of any training offered to hiring managers as part of their training and development
  • Ensure language and etiquette is part of any customer services training offered to your staff to support their interaction with customers, suppliers and other staff members
  • Don’t be afraid to have the conversation with a disabled person. The individual will be more offended if you swerve the interaction than if you engage but don’t get it right first time. For 99% of disabled people, it is all about context. Don’t let your actions be dictated about the concerns of the 1%.
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