Recommended practices

What can I do to be more successful in working with students with disabilities?

The following recommended practices create and maintain a welcoming, accessible and diverse university community. Small changes may make big differences in students’ ability to access information, demonstrate their knowledge and participate fully.

  • Include the NIU Accessibility Statement in course syllabi.
  • Use disability etiquette and person-first language to demonstrate respect and support for students who have disabilities.
  • Involve and include individuals with disabilities in planning and decision making.
  • Universal Design emphasizes accessibility and usability in planning, design and implementation. It is important for students who have disabilities but do not request accommodations as well as students with diverse backgrounds and learning styles. See Universal Design below.

Disability etiquette

People who have disabilities report that other people's attitudes are far more disabling then their own impairments. Public opinion polls identify "admiration, pity, and embarrassment" as typical attitudes held by the public toward people with disabilities.

It is common for people to feel uncertain about what to do or say when interacting with someone who has a disability.

How do you know if someone has a disability?

You do not. The vast majority of disabilities are invisible (e.g., disabilities based upon mental illness, deafness, learning disabilities, chronic illness).

When you first meet someone who has a disability, is it all right to ask about it?

No. Wait until you get to know them first. The only exception is if you need to ask about a potential accommodation.

Are there certain topics you should avoid?

Yes. Do not tell the person that they are inspirational or that you have sympathy for them. Also, don't tell them about all the other people with disabilities you know.

What is the correct way to offer assistance or help to someone with a disability?

Ask. Do not assume that help is needed. Offer the assistance then wait until the person accepts. Then listen to or ask for instructions.

How do you greet someone with a disability when you first meet them?

Offer to shake hands. People with limited hand use or who wear an artificial limb can usually shake hands. Shaking hands with the left hand is acceptable.

What should you do when you don't understand what was said?

Just ask for clarification.

If someone has a personal assistant, should you talk directly to them or the individual who has the disability?

Speak directly to the person with a disability.

What are some strategies for talking with someone who uses a wheelchair?

Position yourself at eye level with the individual. Do not touch the wheelchair without asking. It is part of the individual's personal space, much like eye glasses.

How should you act toward someone's service dog?

Don't disturb the dog because it is working.

Is it okay to say "See you later" to someone who is blind?

It is a common expression. There is no offense.

When you are talking with someone who stutters, should you finish their words if they get "stuck"?

No, be patient and continue to look at the person.

Person-First Language—Speaking and writing about disabilities

"If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought." - George Orwell

Language has power and impacts attitudes. How we say things makes a difference. Certain words express bias, like cripple or afflicted. Person-first language provides a structure and philosophy for writing, reporting and talking about people who have disabilities.

Consider your emotional response to the following:

  • afflicted with Advanced HIV or
  • has Advanced HIV
  • wheel-chair bound or
  • uses a wheelchair


  • Identify the person before mentioning the disability. For example, my stepson has autism….NOT…my autistic stepson.
  • Mention the person’s disability only if it's relevant.
  • Do not describe the person as heroic or inspirational.
  • Use the terms "disabled" and "handicapped" correctly. They mean different things.

Disability = impairment (e.g., Deaf, learning disability, spinal cord injury). The disability is an attribute of the person. It does not define the person.

Handicap = barrier. Barriers may be attitudinal (e.g., refusal to provide an approved accommodation), architectural (e.g., inaccessible buildings) and technological (e.g., websites that do not work with screen reading software). Depending on the situation, anyone can be "handicapped." Imagine that you are in a room with people using American Sign Language. Unless you know how ASL, you are handicapped.

Person-first language is endorsed by multiple professional and consumer groups including the American Psychological Association; World Organization on Disability; and the National Center on Disability & Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Arizona State University.

Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design for Learning acknowledges that not all students learn and demonstrate content mastery in the same way.

  • post lecture notes online prior to class
  • provide printed materials in alternate format
  • provide options in assignments (e.g., write a report or do a presentation)
  • a rubric for grading and giving the rubric to students when initially describing the assignment
  • visual, auditory and written strategies to provide content
  • clickers that have text and symbols on them and that have a virtual clicker option
  • furniture in a meeting room/classroom that allows for wheelchairs to navigate
  • equipment that is adjustable (e.g., adjustable height table; separate table and chair)
  • text that comes with an accessible electronic version or selecting it far enough in advance that an alternate format can be made
  • multi-media materials with captioning


You are encouraged to go beyond compliance and adopt practices that create a welcoming and accessible environment.

  • Know disability etiquette. The most important "rule" is to ask rather than assume you know what to do.
  • Person-first language treats a person's disability as an attribute. It does not define the person. For example, a person uses a wheelchair; they are not confined by a wheelchair. Similarly, people HAVE disabilities. They are not suffering, afflicted, or victimized by their disabilities.
  • Universal Design promotes accessibility for the widest range of people. It is not just for students who have disabilities. Using principles of universal design in the planning, design and implementation of academic instruction, technology, housing and student services ensures accessibility for students with disabilities as well as students with diverse learning styles and backgrounds.


True or false: The terms "disability" and "handicap" are interchangeable.


True or false: When you see a person with a disability, you should always assist them. 


True or false: When you are talking with someone who uses a wheelchair, it is best to remain standing. 


True or false: When someone uses a personal assistant, talk to the person, not the assistant.