People First: A Guide to Interacting with People with Disabilities - DHS 4151

State of Illinois
Department of Human Services

Focus on People First

As the lead state agency serving people with disabilities, the Illinois Department of Human Services', Division of Rehabilitation Services (IDHS/DRS) is dedicated to empowering people with disabilities in becoming full participants in our society.

We can all make this goal a reality by using language that reflects our respect for people with disabilities. While the language you use is important, it is equally important that you demonstrate your respect for people with disabilities through your behavior.

The most important thing to remember when you interact with people with disabilities is that they are people.

Their disability is just one of the many characteristics they have. People with disabilities have the same needs we all do: first and foremost among them is to be treated with dignity and respect.

When you interact with people with disabilities, focus on their abilities, not their disabilities. People with disabilities are unique individuals who have a wealth of knowledge, skills, talents, interests, and experiences that add tremendous diversity, resourcefulness, and creative energy to our society.

Remember, people with disabilities may do things in different ways than people without them however, they can achieve the same outcomes.

General Etiquette Tips

Practice the Golden Rule

Treat everyone as you would like to be treated. Think of the person first, not their disability. Don't shy away from people with disabilities - relax and be yourself!

Always Ask Before Giving Assistance

Just because a person has a disability, they don't necessarily need or want your assistance. Never help someone without first asking them.

One woman recalls: "When I walked on crutches, I was once knocked down by two little old ladies who were going to 'help' me walk on an icy sidewalk. Without asking, they came up, grabbed me, threw me off balance, and down I went!"

Think Before You Speak

Avoid using labels when you speak - they are offensive to everyone, including people with disabilities. Always use people first language when writing about or speaking to people with disabilities. Examples of people first language are included on the front panel of this brochure.

Avoid Showing Pity or Being Patronizing

People with disabilities aren't victims. As a person in a wheelchair said, "I am not a wheelchair victim. Wheelchair victims are the people I run into with my footrest at the supermarket."

When you talk to a person with a disability, don't use pet names, such as "honey". It is also very disrespectful to pat people with disabilities on the head or talk down to them as though they were children.

Interacting with People with Disabilities

When you interact with people with disabilities, talk directly to them, not to their companions, aides, or interpreters.

Here are some ways to interact with people with specific types of disabilities:

  • When you interact with someone who is Deaf or Hard of Hearing, remember that some individuals may be able to hear, some may be able to lip read, while others prefer to use sign language or assistive technology. Ask them how they prefer to communicate.
  • When you interact with someone who is blind or visually impaired, always introduce yourself and let them know when you are leaving. You may offer your arm or elbow as a guide if they request assistance but never push, pull or grab the individual. Don't pet or distract a guide dog. The dog is responsible for its owner's safety and is always working - it is not a pet!!
  • When you interact with someone who uses a wheelchair, do not push, lean on, or hold the person's wheelchair. Try to put yourself at eye level when talking with someone in a wheelchair.
  • When you interact with someone with a cognitive disability, speak to the person in clear, simple sentences. Be patient with them and give them time to communicate with you.
  • When you interact with someone with a speech impairment, allow them as much time as they need to communicate. Be respectful and avoid trying to finish their sentences.

People First Language

Always use positive, people first language that empowers rather than marginalizes people with disabilities. Here are some examples of offensive language and language that should be used:

Offensive Preferred
birth defect Person who is disabled since birth, born with a congenital disability
cerebral palsied Person who has cerebral palsy
cripple Person who needs mobility assistance
deaf and dumb, deaf mute Person who is deaf and does not speak
deformed Person who has a physical disability
emotionally disturbed Person with an emotional disability
handicapped Person with a disability
hunchbacked Person with a spinal curvature
insane, deranged, deviant Person with a mental illness
midget, dwarf Person who is small in stature
Mongoloid Person who has Down Syndrome
Normal Non-disabled, able-bodied
Retarded Person with a cognitive disability
Wheelchair bound, confined to a wheelchair Person who uses a wheelchair

For more information

Call or visit your Illinois Department of Human Services DRS office or Family Community Resource Center (FCRC).

If you have questions about any Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS) program, call or visit your local IDHS/DRS office or FCRC. We will answer your questions. If you do not know where your office is or if you are unable to go there, you may call the automated helpline 24 hours a day at:

1-866-324-5553 (TTY)

You may speak to a representative between: 8:00 a.m. - 5:30 p.m. Monday - Friday (except state holidays)

For answers to your questions, you may also write:

Illinois Department of Human Services
Bureau of Customer and Provider Assistance
100 South Grand Avenue East
Springfield, Illinois 62762

Visit our web site at:

Programs, activities and employment opportunities in the Illinois Department of Human Services are open and accessible to any individual or group without regard to age, sex, race, sexual orientation, disability, ethnic origin or religion. The department is an equal opportunity employer and practices affirmative action and reasonable accommodation programs.

DHS 4151 (R-05-14) DRS' People First

Printed by the Authority of the State of Illinois.

1,500 copies P.O.#14-0889