The Cornell Just-in-Time Toolkit for Managers

Tips, checklists, and resources to help managers lead a disability inclusive workforce.

Topic #3
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Interacting with Employees Who Have Disabilities

This tool gives you some general guidelines and best practices for interacting with employees with disabilities. These are basic recommendations and some suggested etiquette. You should still use your best judgment and common sense and consider the personal preferences of the individual with whom you are interacting.

Person first; disability second 

The first rule of thumb: connect with the person, not the disability. Individuals with disabilities are individuals, and like people without disabilities, they have their own hopes, interests, strengths, shortcomings, quirks, likes, and dislikes as does anyone else.  

Use person-first language

We often hear the word “disabled people.” The first word that gets our attention in this phrase is “disabled.” And that’s why this phrase doesn’t work for many individuals with disabilities. Though it’s a little longer to say, the phrase “individuals with disabilities” puts the individual first and centers our attention on the person rather than their disability.   

The word “handicapped”

It’s likely that the word “handicapped,” originated from a time when people with disabilities were begging in the streets—making a living with their “hand in their cap.” Because this word brings us back to a time of complete powerlessness for people with disabilities, the word “handicapped” is strongly discouraged by disability advocates and can be offensive to many people with disabilities.

About greeting & meeting 

You’ve just met someone and extend your right hand in greeting only to realize that the person does not have a right hand. You’re flustered and embarrassed. But here’s some points to consider:

  • The point of a greeting is not really to shake hands, but to extend welcome and goodwill. 
  • If you’re not sure the person has use of their right hand, its fine to simply give a verbal greeting.
  • Take your cue from the person; if they extend their hand or arm, shake hands as you would with anyone else or simply touch their arm. If not, a simple smile and “Nice to meet you” will suffice.
  • You can be sure that this has happened before to this person. Don’t get caught up in your own discomfort; just move the conversation forward.

When to offer help 

When someone appears to be struggling, it’s OK to ask what they need. “Would you like some help?” If the person says no, go on with your day. If they say yes, ask, “What can I do?” After asking these questions, just listen and take your cue from the person.  

Interacting with employees with sensory disabilities (seeing or hearing)

  • If someone who is blind appears to be really struggling or seems lost, ask him or her if they’d like some assistance. If so, simply offer your elbow and let them take it. Lead, don’t push. If needed, offer quiet verbal descriptions of the surroundings. 
  • When you begin a conversation with someone who’s blind, say your name to let them know who you are. Be clear when you leave the conversation.
  • Never interact with a working service animal. If you’re unsure whether it is a service animal, just ask.
  • Many people who are deaf are adept at reading lips. Speak in a normal tone of voice, look directly at them when speaking and speak at a normal speed.
  • If using a sign language interpreter, talk directly to the person and not to the interpreter.  

Words to avoid

  • Cripple (Focuses on the disability)
  • Confined to a wheelchair (Many people who use wheelchairs do not feel “confined”)
  • Deaf and dumb (Implies that hearing-impaired people are intellectually-impaired)
  • Psycho (Creates a negative false image of psychiatric disability)
  • Retarded (Fallen out of use)
  • Slow (“Slow” is often a subtle way of demeaning people who do things a little differently)
  • Victim (Assumes person is powerless)
  • Sufferer (We don’t know whether the person actually feels they are suffering)

What NOT to SAY to an employee with a disability…

  • You’re so brave!
  • I had a friend who had a disability once. So I know just what you’re going through.
  • I don’t know how you do it; I never could!
  • Do you need to rest?
  • You sure don’t look like you have a disability.
  • You’re such a source of inspiration!
  • You people just want favors and special treatment.
  • I feel sorry for you; but your disability isn’t my problem.

What NOT to DO to an employee with a disability…

  • Touch or push a wheelchair without asking and getting permission first (Consider a wheelchair personal space.)
  • Rush to help without first asking what’s needed.
  • Pretend you understand what someone is saying when you really don’t. (It’s OK to admit you don’t understand what someone is saying. Keep trying until you do.)
  • Pat someone on the head who uses a wheelchair.
  • Continue to stand when talking with a person who uses a wheelchair.  If the conversation lasts more than a few minutes, grab a chair so you can both be at eye level.

Heroes in our midst:  Veterans with disabilities in Cornell's workplace

Research shows that veterans with disabilities do have significant fears of disability discrimination in the workplace (Rudstam, Wilson & Gower, 2012). At Cornell, we will work hard to ensure that this fear will not apply in our workplace. We will strive to create a work climate where veterans are welcome, whether or not they have disabilities. Here are a few statements to stay away from when interacting with service members with disabilities:

  • How did you get your disability?Let the veteran decide when, how or if they will share the details of the events that led to their disability.
  • Do you think we should’ve been there?Though many would view this as a rather casual question, it can be a very emotionally loaded and traumatic topic for some veterans. Unless the veteran brings up this question, stay away from it.
  • Did you lose any friends?  Similar to the above question, this area could be very anxiety-loaded for some veterans. 
  • I know just what you’re going throughEach veteran has a unique experience of service and of disability. Do not make any assumptions about a veteran’s service, transition or disability experience. However, if you are a veteran with life stories that might shed light on a veteran’s current challenges, do share these stories in situations where this would help to build connection and trust.
  • Gratitude is never wrong. No matter where a veteran is in his journey to transition back to civilian life, expressing simple heartfelt gratitude for his service is never wrong.   

Relax, listen, and laugh!

As with anyone, think more about connecting to the individual than about their disability. Don’t be so worried you’re going to say or do something wrong that you avoid interacting with the person. Reach out, relax, or tell a joke - just as you would with anyone else. 


Rudstam, H., Gower, W.S., Streeter, J. (2012). Connecting Veterans with Disabilities with Employers. Paper presented at the 2012 National ADA Symposium, Indianapolis, IN.