Effective Communication Guidelines

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Disability Etiquette: refers to respectful communication and interaction with persons with disabilities; focus on their abilities, not their disabilities. Persons with disabilities are not conditions or diseases; they are individual human beings. For example, a person is not an epileptic, but rather a person who has epilepsy. Other impairments may include mobility, vision, hearing, speech, language, and/or mental or learning disabilities. Basic understanding will help us feel more at ease and prevent awkward situations during interaction. 

Use Person-First Language: Avoid terms like “handicapped," “physically challenged," and other similar references; instead use “people with disabilities" or “persons with disabilities."  “Disabled people" may be offensive as it defines people as disabled first and a person second. Good etiquette helps organizations serve customers more effectively.

Auxiliary Aids: examples include braille or large print materials, assistive listening devices and systems, hearing aids and those that are telephone compatible. Avoid touching a person's mobility aid(s), such as a cane, wheelchair or other device, which are. Ask if interested in a demonstration of electronic aids. Avoid trying to use such equipment unless invited to do so.

Be Yourself: As with any new situation, if you can relax, everyone will feel more comfortable.  Treat people with disabilities as individuals, offering the same respect and consideration as you would with anyone else. Avoid treating the person as a disability. Engage in small talk, using normal voice tone when verbally greeting or in conversation. Raise your voice volume only as requested. Don’t assume disability is all the person can talk about or is interested in.

Communication: Speak directly with the person, not to an aide, friend or interpreter. Let the person know your communication with them is worthwhile to you. Listen patiently and carefully. If you do not understand, ask the person to repeat a statement or request or ask if it can be said differently. If the person uses a wheelchair, sit down to converse at the same level. Offer to make basic information available in large print, braille, electronic or audio formats.

Environments: Be mindful about the setting. It may be difficult for people with vision, speech, or hearing impairments to participate fully in a conversation in noisy or dark environments, or if many people are speaking at the same time. Be aware of clear paths of travel for people using a wheelchair. People, who are blind, may find it helpful if you describe activities, surroundings, or obstacles. A person with chemical sensitivity may have a reaction to smoke, perfume, or other toxins in the environment.

Helping: Ask first if the person wants help or if you are unsure; follow the person’s cues and do not automatically give assistance. There is no need to be offended if someone refuses your offer of assistance. It is their choice to be as independent as they can.

Hidden Disabilities: A disability may not be apparent. One may have trouble following a conversation, may not respond if you call or wave, or may say or do something seemingly inappropriate. The person may experience low vision, loss of hearing, or mental or learning disabilities. Assumptions about the person or the disability may hinder the interaction or conversation.

Meeting Someone: Avoid actions and words suggesting the person will encounter different treatment. Identify yourself if meeting persons who are blind. Remind the person of the context if you met before, as there may be no visual cues to jog the memory. It is okay to invite a person in a wheelchair to “go for a walk”, or to ask a blind person if they “see what you mean.” People who use wheelchairs may have other disabilities. Some have use of their arms and some do not.  Extend your hand to shake if you normally do. A person who cannot shake hands will let you know.

Socializing: Include persons with disabilities in activities or conversation as you would anyone else. There is no need to feel uncomfortable or fear they will feel uncomfortable. They know what they can do and what they want to do. Allow an option to participate or not.

Touching: Gently touch a person with disabilities to gain their attention, if needed and always remain respectful and professional. Avoid petting or distracting guide dogs, and do not pat or touch a person with a disability unless there is a good reason, like shaking hands to greet or if person requests assistance. Never lean on or push a person's wheelchair without permission. When encountering a person with prosthetic hand(s) or limited arm/hand movement, follow their cues regarding the preferred hand to shake.

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  • Remain Open-Minded
  • Build Relationships
  • Speak Directly to the Person
  • Be Inclusive and Resourceful
  • Ask the Person When Unsure
  • Be Mindful of the Environment
  • Treat Adults as Adults
  • Avoid touching Auxiliary Aids

Helpful Resources include:

Contact Information

Disability Compliance Office
Department of Personnel Services
9310 Tech Center Drive
Sacramento, CA  95826
Phone: (916) 874-7642
CA Relay Service 711
Fax: (916) 874-7132
Email: dco@saccounty.gov

Cori Stillson, ADA Coordinator