How to Act Around People With Special Needs

Your family may have given you advice like saying "please" and "thank you," raising your hand before talking in class, and saying "excuse me" before leaving the dinner table. But that advice rarely extends to how to be courteous when you're with a person with a disability. Here is how to be respectful of them and help them (and you) feel at ease.


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    Understand that disabled people are no less human than non-disabled people. They have wants, needs, and people who love them just like others do. They may have a different way of living, and may learn things differently, but they are smart, wonderful people.
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    Treat them as your equals. Many people talk down to people with disabilities, as they would to a child. However, plenty of disabled can pick up on this and will be hurt, annoyed, or angered by it. Patience is key. If a person with a disability doesn't understand you, try to accommodate them instead of giving up.
    • Rephrase what you said, pronounce things carefully, and/or say it a bit slower as needed.
    • Avoid using complex or technical terms if they have issues with understanding them. So instead of Expand that stub please try Write more things about the title, if you can, please.
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    Stay calm if something happens. Don't panic if they fall down, experience sensory overload, or get injured. Kindly ask "How can I help you?" and let them tell you what they need (if anything).
    • Sometimes, they can handle it themselves. If they say they don't need help, don't try to force your "help" onto them.
    • During sensory overload, a person may not be able to speak or advocate for themselves. See if they can write, sign, or type. If not, take them somewhere quiet and relaxing, and encourage others to leave them alone.
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    Smile, and be friendly. It makes you seem nice and approachable. Plus, it can boost your mood!
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    Make small talk with them. They like to talk and share their feelings, just like us. Ask them about their day, school/work, travels they have taken, friends, hobbies, anything! People love to talk about themselves and their interests.
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    Don't overthink it! Again, people with disabilities are no different from anyone else, so simply treat them like an average person.
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    Be supportive of them. If they seem very proud of something, tell them when they've done a good job! If will make them proud to know that they have done something to be happy about.
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    Refrain from using unkind words. Being considerate is important, and respectful language makes it clear that you care about them and don't view them as lesser than yourself.
    • Never ask what is "wrong" with them. Not only is prying about someone's disability rude, the word "wrong" is hurtful and insensitive. Discrimination and careless behavior by others can cause a person more problems than their disability does, at times. Be sensitive and, if you really want to know the details, ask a friend or relative about it, or read up on their condition, if possible. It's typically best to give people with disabilities the benefit of the doubt when they do something that you find odd or rude.
    • Especially avoid using the word r*tard(ed), which is known as the "R" word. It's considered an insult, and many people within the special needs and disabled community find this word deeply hurtful and offensive.
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    Involve them. Include them in the conversation, throw the ball to them during a game and notice if they are confused or putting themselves in danger, at which time you should discreetly offer a hand.
    • If they are in a wheelchair, sit down on some steps or swings and indicate to the group to follow your example to keep everyone at the same eye level.
    • If they're blind, try not to rely on humorous facial expressions or mimes. If you're talking about something that looks funny or interesting, provide a quick description so that no one is left out.. Instead of pointing say Wow, there goes a really cool car. I think it's a Ferrari. and instead of just laughing along as your friend does a daft impression, say something like Honestly Darragh, you look more like Father Christmas when you pull that face than some sort of pop star!
    • Explain jokes or sarcasm if it looks like someone doesn't get it.
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    Don't assume what they can or can't do. Each disabled person is unique, and two people with the same disability may have very different needs and capabilities. Get to know them as an individual. Use this knowledge to be aware of any potentially dangerous or awkward situations or to know if you can do anything to help, such as gently pointing out an unexpected step.
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    Don't be afraid to ask. If you aren't sure about their needs or how to accommodate them, just ask. They are the experts on their own needs, and can tell you how to be helpful and respectful.
    • "You seem a bit distracted and uncomfortable. Should we sit somewhere less busy?"
    • "You usually turn down my help when I offer to help out with jars and doorknobs. Do you want me to keep offering, or should I wait until you ask?"
    • "This building is kind of a maze. Do you need help finding your professor's office?"
    • "If you ever have a shutdown when I'm around, what should I do to help you?"
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    Understand that they'll have good and bad days. Their needs and abilities may vary day to day. Some days they may be able to do something easily, and the next they may find it difficult.


  • Don't worry if it's a little bit awkward at first. You may be unused to spending time with people with disabilities. As you become more familiar with them, you will get used to it and feel more comfortable around people different from you.

Article Info

Categories: Disability Issues | Social Interactions