Disability Quick Reference Guide

Accessibility banner, consisting of symbols for wheelchair mobility, international symbols for deafness and blindness, a symbol for cognitive disability, and in the centre is a larger symbol for digital accessibility

Contents of this page

The following information was adapted from the NZ Office of Disability Issues. There is a list of references at the bottom of this page.

Respectful languageIcon for respectful language: the symbols $#!% above the words 'respectful language'.

Is it better to say things like 'differently-abled'? (no)
Am I allowed to just say 'disabled'? (yes)

Some folks refer to themselves as disabled people (this is identity-first language).
Others prefer to be called people with disability (this is people-first language).
Ableism is the word for prejudice or discrimination against disabled people (don't be ableist!)

  • Be factual and straight to the point (don't get flowery or try to dance around the issue).
  • People can have individual impairments.
  • People become disabled when their needs aren't met because of attitudinal or physical barriers in the world.
  • It's up to each individual person whether they identify as part of the disability community.

If you offend someone:

  • Apologize
  • Thank them for making you aware of the problem
  • Ask them about their language preferences
  • Use their preferences

Words to avoid

Don't use language that's awkward, patronizing, or offensive...

Don't say Instead try
"differently-abled", "handicapped", "special needs", "inspirational" disabled person, person with disability, person with impairments
"cripple", "lame", "deformity" person with physical disability, person with mobility impairments
"mentally retarded", "slow" person with intellectual disability or learning disability
"dwarf", "m*dget" little person, person with dwarfism, person of short stature (or just use their name!)

Don't use language that portrays disabled people as victims...

Don't say Instead try
"suffers from", "afflicted by" person with [type of impairment],
e.g. "person with spina bifida"
"wheelchair bound" wheelchair user
"epileptic attack", "spell", "fit" seizure
"brain damaged" person with brain injury, or cognitive impairment, or intellectual disability

Don't use language that equates non-disabled as 'normal' (or suggests that people with disability are weird)...

Don't say Instead try
"able-bodied" person without disability
(in relation to non-disabled folks)
neurotypical, seeing/hearing person, person without motor impairments, non-disabled person...

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Basic disability etiquetteIcon of a person in a wheelchair shaking hands with a person who is standing. Below this are the words 'disability etiquette'.

We don’t have to feel awkward when dealing with disabled people. The basic principle is to always put the person before the impairment, and treat everyone with respect. If you are ever unsure about what to do or say, just ask!

The following practical tips might be helpful:

  • Ask before you help

    Just because someone has an impairment, don't assume they need help. Do not insist on helping. Disabled adults want to be treated as independent people. Offer assistance only if the person appears to need it.

  • Respond graciously to requests

    If a person does want help, ask how you can be of assistance before you act.

  • Be sensitive about physical contact

    Many people have physical sensitivities and don’t like to be touched. Grabbing a person’s arm or wheelchair unexpectedly could be upsetting or throw them off balance.

  • Think before you speak

    Always speak directly to the disabled person, not to their companion, support person, or sign language interpreter. Respect their privacy. Consider, would you ask anyone else the same question?

  • Never ask "What happened to you?" or “What’s wrong with them?”

    If you ask insensitive questions about a person’s disability, they may feel like you are treating them as a disability and not as a person. It is rarely necessary to know the underlying cause of a person’s disability. It is not a disabled person’s job to educate you, however if you ask politely they may be prepared to explain the nature of their disability.

  • Don't make assumptions

    Disabled people are the best judge of what they can or cannot do. Don't make presumptions about a person’s limitations or abilities. Recognize that people with disabilities have diverse needs, and a person’s needs right now might be completely unrelated to their disability.

  • "Nothing About Us Without Us"

    Disabled people must be included in discussions about how best to meet their needs.

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People with mobility impairmentIcon of a shaky hand and the universal wheelchair mobility . Below this is the word 'mobility'.

Physical impairment comes in many different forms. Some people have difficulty with movement, while others have impaired manual dexterity or coordination. People with physical impairments may use mobility aids such as wheelchairs, walkers, crutches, canes, or artificial limbs, or may use a variety of assistive devices for daily living.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Wheelchair users are people. Focus on the person, not the equipment.
  • Never patronize wheelchair users by patting them on the head or shoulder.
  • When speaking to a person using a wheelchair or a person using crutches, place yourself at eye level in front of them to facilitate the conversation.
  • Don't push or touch a person's wheelchair; it's part of their personal space. If you help someone down a curb without waiting for instructions, you may dump them out of their chair. You may detach the chair's parts if you lift it by the handles or the footrest.
  • Keep the ramps and wheelchair-accessible doors to your building unlocked and unblocked. Displays should not be in front of entrances, rubbish bins should not be in the middle of aisles and boxes should not be stored on ramps.
  • Be aware of wheelchair users' reach limits. Place as many items as possible within their grasp. And make sure there is a clear path of travel to shelves and display racks. When talking to a wheelchair user, grab your own chair and sit at their level. If that's not possible, stand at a slight distance, so they aren't straining their neck to make eye contact with you.
  • If the service counter at your place of business is too high for a wheelchair user to see over, step around it to provide service. Have a clipboard handy if filling in forms or providing signatures is expected.
  • If your building has different routes through it, be sure your signs direct people to the most accessible ways around the facility. People who walk with a cane or crutches also need to know the easiest way to get around a place, but stairs may be easier for them than a ramp. Ensure security guards and receptionists can answer questions about the most accessible way around the building and grounds.
  • If the nearest public toilet is not accessible or is located on an inaccessible floor, allow a person in a wheelchair to use a private or employees' accessible toilet.
  • People who use canes or crutches need their arms to balance themselves, so never grab them. People who are mobility-impaired may lean on a door for support as they open it. Pushing the door open from behind or unexpectedly opening the door may cause them to fall. Even pulling out or pushing in a chair may present a problem. Always ask before offering help.
  • If you offer a seat to a person who is mobility-impaired, keep in mind that chairs with arms or with higher seats are easier for some people to use.
  • Falls may be a problem for people with mobility impairments. Be sure to set out adequate warning signs if the floor is wet. Also, put out mats on rainy or snowy days to keep the floors as dry as possible.
  • People who are not visibly mobility-impaired may have needs related to their mobility. For example, a person with chronic pain or a heart condition may have trouble walking long distances or walking quickly. Be sure work areas and workstations have ample seating for people to sit and rest.
  • Some people have limited use of their hands, wrists, or arms. Be prepared to help with reaching for, grasping, or lifting objects, or opening doors.
  • Don’t worry about using words like “walk over there” or “step this way”. This is part of everyday conversation and not considered offensive.

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People with speech impairmentSilhouette of a person speaking, above the word 'speech'.

There are many forms of speech impairment, ranging from total inability to speak (muteness) to stammer or speech impediment. Some people with intellectual disability find it easier to communicate using apps or communication devices. Speech impairment does not imply that a person is unable to communicate, and there might not be any issues with the person's hearing.

Some considerations:

  • A person who has had a stroke, is severely hard of hearing, uses a voice prosthesis, or who has a stammer or slurred speech may be difficult to understand.
  • Give the person your full, unhurried attention and speak in your regular tone of voice. Don't interrupt or finish the person's sentences.
  • If you have trouble understanding, don't nod. Just ask a person to repeat themselves, as many times as necessary until you understand. In most cases the person won't mind and will appreciate your effort to hear what they have to say.
  • If you are not sure whether you have understood, you can repeat for verification.
  • If, after trying, you still cannot understand the person, ask them to write it down or to suggest another way of facilitating communication.
  • Keep your manner encouraging rather than correcting.
  • A quiet environment makes communication easier.

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People who are Deaf or hard of hearingIcon of an ear above the word 'hearing'.

The terms "Deaf" and "hard of hearing" mean two different things.

Hard of hearing or hearing impaired describes a person with any degree of hearing loss, including people with no ability to hear at all ("deafness").

Deaf (with a capital 'D') describes people who identify as members of a cultural community who use New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) as their primary language. Many Deaf people do not consider themselves disabled, instead they identify as Deaf in the same way as another person might identify as Māori or Scottish.

NZSL is an entirely separate language from English, with its own syntax and grammar. People who are born Deaf and grow up communicating in NZSL may have difficulty with written or spoken English because it is a second language to them. People who lose their hearing later in life (hard of hearing) may find it easier to lipread or use written English, than to learn NZSL as a second language. There is a range of communication preferences and styles among people with hearing impairment that cannot be explained in this brief space.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • To facilitate lip reading, face into the light and keep your hands and other objects away from your mouth. Don't turn your back or walk about while talking. If you look or move away, the person might assume that the conversation is over.
  • People with cochlear implants or hearing aids will usually inform you what works best for them.
  • Some people may actively hide their hearing difficulties or hearing devices because they don’t want to be treated differently from people without a hearing impairment.
  • When the exchange of information is complex, the most effective way to communicate with a native signer is through a qualified NZ sign language interpreter. For a simple interaction writing back and forth is usually okay.
  • Follow the person's cues to find out if they prefer sign language, gesturing, writing, or speaking. If you have trouble understanding the speech of a person who is Deaf or hard of hearing, let them know.
  • When using a sign language interpreter, look directly at the person who is deaf and maintain eye contact to be polite. Talk directly to the person ("What would you like?"), rather than to the interpreter ("Ask them what they'd like").
  • People who are Deaf need to be included in the decision-making process on issues that affect them; don't decide for them (there is a long history of Deaf people being excluded from discussions about how best to meet their needs).
  • Before speaking to a person who is Deaf or hard of hearing, make sure you get their attention. Depending on the situation, you might wave your hand in their field of vision or tap their shoulder.
  • Rephrase, rather than repeat, sentences the person doesn't understand.
  • Speak clearly. There is no need to shout at a person who is Deaf or hard of hearing. If the person uses a hearing aid, it will be calibrated to normal voice levels; your shout will just distort the sound.
  • Be aware of "Deaf nod" - a person might nod even though they don't understand you! Ask for confirmation that a person understands you clearly.
  • Communication can be exhausting for people who are Deaf or hard of hearing. It takes a lot of mental effort to lipread or translate between English and NZSL.
  • People who are Deaf (and some who are hard of hearing or have speech impairments) make and receive telephone calls with the assistance of a ‘relay service’.
  • Professional relay services and interpreter services are suitable for confidential communications. Remember you are communicating with the client, not the interpreter.

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People who are blind or have low visionIcon of an eye above the word 'vision'.

Visual impairment comes in many forms, including colour blindness, blurry vision or blind spots, reduced peripheral vision (“tunnel vision”), reduced vision in low-light conditions (“night blindness”), or full blindness.

A person may have a visual impairment that is not obvious. For example, a person who is “legally blind” may see perfectly well under certain conditions but not others, or a person who identifies as blind may still have light sensitivity and feel more comfortable wearing sunglasses on a sunny day.

Here are some important pointers:

  • Trust that a blind person is competent to orient themselves and travel unassisted down the street unless they ask for help.
  • Be prepared to help when asked, for example in reading signs. Offer to read written information such as forms to customers who are blind.
  • Not everyone who is blind can read Braille. Not every blind person wears dark glasses, uses a cane, or has a guide dog.
  • Identify yourself before you make physical contact with a person who is blind. Tell them your name, and your role if it's appropriate (they cannot see your uniform or name tag). Be sure to introduce them to others who are in the group, so they are not excluded.
  • When addressing a person who is blind, it is helpful to call them by name or touch them gently on the arm.
  • If a new employee is blind or visually impaired, offer them a tour of your workplace so they can get their bearings.
  • People who are blind need their arms for balance. Offer your arm to guide them, rather than taking theirs. However, it is appropriate to guide a blind person's hand to a banister or the back of a chair.
  • If the person has a guide dog, walk on the side opposite the dog. As you are walking, describe the setting, noting any obstacles, such as stairs ("up" or "down") or a big crack in the footpath. Other hazards include half-opened doors, desks, or plants. If you are going to give a warning, be specific, "Look out!" does not tell the person if they should stop, run, duck or jump.
  • If you are giving directions, give specific, non-visual information. Rather than say, "Go to your right when you reach the office supplies" (which assumes the person knows where the office supplies are), instead say, "Walk forward to the end of this aisle then make a full right."
  • If you need to leave a person who is blind, inform them first and let them know where the exit is, then leave them near a wall, table, or some other landmark. The middle of a room will seem like the middle of nowhere to them.
  • Don't touch the person's cane or guide dog. The dog is working and needs to concentrate. The cane is part of the individual's personal space. If the person puts the cane down, don't move it. Let them know if it's in the way.
  • A person who is visually impaired may need written material in large print. A clear font with appropriate spacing is just as important as type size. Labels and signs should be lettered in contrasting colours. It is easiest for people with vision impairments to read bold white letters on a black background.
  • Good lighting is important, but it shouldn't be too bright. In fact, very shiny paper or walls can produce a glare that disturbs people's eyes.
  • Keep walkways clear of obstructions. Tuck in chairs and keep items off the floor. If people who are blind or visually impaired are regular clients, inform them about any physical changes, such as rearranged furniture, equipment or other items that have been moved.
  • There are many different forms of colour blindness, and the condition is more widespread than many people realize. Never have information rely only on changes in colour (e.g. green = good, red = bad).
  • Don't worry about using words such as "see" or "look" in a conversation. These words are a part of everyday conversation and are not considered offensive.

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People with cognitive impairment or intellectual disabilitySilhouette of a person's head, with coloured squares floating away from the person's head. Below this is the word 'cognitive'.

The terms cognitive impairment and intellectual disability cover a wide range of disabilities which limit a major life activity. The disability might be genetic or may result from a wide range of brain injuries such as stroke, hypoxia (lack of oxygen), or traumatic brain injury. Impairment may be mild or severe, and a person may have had disability from birth or this might be a new and confusing situation for them.

A person with intellectual disability may:

  • Take longer to learn new things
  • Need support to learn new skills
  • Need help to understand complex information
  • Find it difficult to communicate with other people
  • Find everyday activities difficult

These are some ways you can support a person with intellectual disability:

  • Use language that is concrete rather than abstract. Be specific, without being simplistic.
  • Some people benefit from having information presented in Easy Read format that combines plain English with descriptive pictures.
  • Repeat information, using different wording. Allow time for the information to be fully understood.
  • Some people may respond slowly in conversation. Be patient, flexible, and supportive.
  • Some people with cognitive impairments may be easily distracted. Try to redirect them politely.
  • People with brain injury or dementia may have short-term memory difficulties and may repeat themselves or require information to be repeated.
  • People with auditory or perceptual difficulties may need to have directions repeated and may take notes to help them remember directions or the sequence of a task.
  • People who experience "sensory overload" may become disorientated or confused if there is too much information to absorb at once. Provide information gradually and clearly. Reduce background noise, if possible.

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People with autism or neurodiversitySilhouette of a person's head, inside which is a rainbow-coloured infinity symbol. Below this is the word 'neurodiversity'.

Neurodiversity is a concept that's been around for a while and has a strong basis in science. The idea is that conditions like ADHD and autism aren't "abnormal" but normal and natural variations of the human brain. When we frame neurodivergent thinking as different, rather than as deficits or impairment, this way of thinking helps us to focus on people's strengths.

The word neurotypical is used to describe individuals with 'typical' developmental, intellectual, and cognitive abilities (those who are not neurodivergent). Nobody is perfectly neurotypical, we are all on the spectrum of human existence, that's how a spectrum works.

Some forms of neurodiversity include:

'Disorder' terminology Typical strengths and characteristics may include
autism spectrum 'disorder' (ASD) honesty/directness, concentration, fine detail processing
attention deficit hyperactivity 'disorder' (ADHD) creativity, hyper-focus, energy and passion
dyslexia or dyscalculia visual thinking, creativity, people skills, physical skills
Tourette syndrome enhanced cognitive control, observational & motor skills
anxiety and depression enhanced resilience, awareness, risk assessment skills

Here are some ways to support people with autism:

  • Remember that the "autism spectrum" refers to a wide range of conditions where people may have difficulty with social skills, behaviour, verbal and nonverbal communication. Signs and symptoms vary with age and can also vary over time. Symptoms can be mild, moderate, or severe.
  • Most people with autism experience some degree of difficulty processing everyday sensory information, so it is helpful to create a safer sensory environments.
  • To avoid sensory overload, create work places free from loud noises and strong lighting. Natural light or soft incandescent light may be easier to tolerate than fluorescent or flashing lights.
  • Large groups can be over-stimulating or overwhelming. People with autism can find it challenging to understand social nuances in large groups. If this is the case, try working with smaller groups in quiet rooms.
  • People with autism might communicate with different ways of speaking or writing. It is important to respect these diverse forms of communication.
  • Some people find direct, sustained eye contact to be very uncomfortable or threatening.
  • Bear in mind that the tone of voice, body language, or facial expressions of a person with autism may not match what is intended to be communicated.
  • Do not expect a person with ASD to read nonverbal communication. When necessary, be clear and direct.
  • Make sure to allow for sufficient processing time when asking questions or engaging in conversation.
  • Many people with autism prefer routine and predictability. Let them know how long the current activity is expected to take and what will happen next.
  • 'Stimming' refers to repetitive behaviour such as finger-tapping, rocking, or fiddling with objects such as a fidget spinner. This helps some people to calm or focus. Understand that a person who is stimming might be doing this to help themselves focus on a conversation rather than to distract themselves from it.

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