Disability Awareness Training

Accessibility Skills: Communication Strategies

As discussed earlier, disability is a contextual experience, and depends on the interaction between an individual and his/her environment, including physical, information, communication, social, and policy environments.

Effective communication is essential in creating an accessible information and social environment for people with disabilities.

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Dr. Betsy Zaborowski, former Executive Director, National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute, on How to Refer to Blind People.

How to Refer to Blind People (1:23)

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People-first Language

One step in creating an accessible environment can be the language used to refer to individuals with disabilities. People-first language emphasizes the person, not the disability. Disability is not the primary, defining characteristic of an individual, but one of several aspects of the whole person. 

People-first language are guidelines, especially for print and publications.



People-first Language

Labels Not to Use

people with disabilities

the handicapped or disabled

people with mental retardation

the mentally retarded

he has a cognitive disability

he’s retarded

my son has autism

my son is autistic

she has Down syndrome

she’s a Downs kid, a mongoloid

he has a learning disability

he’s learning disabled

she has a physical disability

she’s crippled

he’s of short stature or he’s short

he’s a dwarf (or midget)

she has an emotional disability

she’s emotionally disturbed

he uses a wheelchair

he’s wheelchair bound or confined to a wheelchair

typical kids or kids without disabilities

normal and/or healthy kid

she receives special ed services or additional support services

she’s in special ed

accessible parking, bathrooms, etc.

handicapped parking, bathrooms, etc.

she has a need for…

she has a problem with…

Some exceptions

Deaf or hard of hearing—not “having a hearing impairment.”  Many people who are deaf and communicate with sign language consider themselves to be members of a cultural and linguistic minority. They refer to themselves as Deaf with a capital "D" and may be offended by the term "hearing impaired."

“Crip" language as part of disability culture. People with disabilities may use the words “disabled” and “crip” to refer to themselves. They would also be likely to say, "I am blind," or "I am a paraplegic." However, people without disabilities should not use this terminology.

Remember that every person will have individual histories and preferences, and to respect each individual’s choice and preferences. If you don’t know, ask the person what is preferred.


Disability Stereotypes

Common stereotypes to avoid:

The Experiences of Blind People

Bruce Breslauer, Great Falls, Montana "Stereotyping" (:55)

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Dennis Holston, New York City "Stereotyping" (1:17)

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Sheila Leigland, Great Falls, Montana "Stereotyping" (2:34)

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Dr. Betsy Zaborowski, Baltimore, Maryland "How Does It Feel to Be Blind?" (2:06)

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Mindy Flegelman, New York City "Growing Up Blind" (1:12)

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Judy Schmeidler, New York City "Losing Sight from Disease" (1:49)

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Communication Tips

blind visitors


SPECIFICS: Things to keep in mind when communicating....

…with People with Physical Disabilities

…with People who are D/deaf or hard of hearing

…with People with Cognitive Disabilities


For example, some people may benefit from simple, direct sentences or from supplementary visual forms of communication, such gestures, diagrams, or demonstrations.

…with People with Visual Impairments

What to do if a blind person appears lost (1:42)

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Media player icon showing Georgina Kleege

Dr.Betsy Zaborowski, former Executive Director, National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute, on What to Do if a Blind Person Appears Lost.

Sighted Guide Technique

Sighted guide, originally developed for people who are blind, can also be helpful for people with low vision, or people who need balance or mobility support.

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Basic technique: the person who is blind or has low vision holds the guide's arm lightly above the elbow and allows the guide to walk one-half step ahead. This allows him or her to feel and follow the guide's movements.

Demonstration of Sighted Guide Technique at an ABS training session (2:54)

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To begin, position yourself slightly in front of the person you are guiding. Touch the visually impaired person’s arm with your elbow on the side they prefer to use. He or she can then take your arm above the elbow. If someone needs extra support for walking, bend your supporting arm parallel to the ground so he or she can apply weight to your arm. Give any guiding signals only when a change in motion is needed. Signaling early creates confusion.

Guiding through narrow passages or doors
When going through a narrow door or passage, press your guiding arm backward toward the small of your back so the other person can move in single file behind you. When coming to a door, stop first, then say whether the door opens toward or away from you, and whether it opens to the right or left. The other person can then move to the appropriate side. Open the door and proceed.

Guiding up/down stairs, curbs, or escalators
Stairs: come to a stop at the edge of the first step. Indicate whether the stairs go up or down and where the location of the railing is. Some people may like to know whether there are a few or many steps. The other person will follow one stair step behind, holding your arm with one hand and the handrail with the other. Pause after completing the stairs. If the person is using a guide dog, they may prefer to navigate the stairs with the dog and then resume sighted guide.

Curbs: pause briefly at the very edge of the curb and say whether the curb goes up or down.

Escalators and revolving doors: use techniques similar to those for stairs, curbs, and doors. If the person with you is uncomfortable, use stairs or regular doors. Buildings are required to have stairs or regular doors if they have escalators or revolving doors.

Guiding to a chair or car
Chair: Place the other person’s hand on the back or side of the chair, if possible, so he or she knows where the chair is and which way it is facing, and can then decide where to sit.

Car: Place one of their hands on the door handle and have them locate the edge of the car roof with their other hand. Then the person can seat himself or herself. 

See a Sighted Guide demonstration
in this video by the American Foundation for the Blind

sighted guide


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Disability Awareness Training
  A New Paradigm
  WHO New Definition of Disability
    Social or Human Rights New Model
    Accessibility and "Invisible" Disabilities
  Defining Accessibility
  Why Access to the Arts?
    Artists' Perspective
  Personal Perspective
    Legal Perspective
    Economic Perspective
    Institutional Perspective
  Accessibility Skills
    People-first Language
    Disability Stereotypes
    Communication Tips
    Sighted Guide Technique
  Assistive Technologies
    Mobility Accommodations
    Sensory Accommodations
    Cognitive Accommodations
  An Accessible Museum: Universal Design
  Tools For Accessibility
  Practical Exercises


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