Interacting with Persons with Physical Disabilities

There are many simple things you can do to ensure effective and productive interactions with individuals with disabilities. The following are some practical tips for interacting with persons with physical disabilities.


What does it mean if someone has a physical disability?

There are many types of physical disabilities, including mobility-related disabilities, health and medical disabilities, and disabilities that result from brain injuries. Sometimes physical disabilities are obvious; however, it is not always possible to identify someone with a physical disability or a medical or health-related disability.

Some physical disabilities require the use of an assistive device (for example, a wheelchair or walker). However, those with arthritis or multiple sclerosis, for instance, may not show any visible signs of disability. Physical disabilities may affect someone’s ability to stand, walk, sit or move around. Some physical disabilities are episodic; they can flare up, and then go through periods of remission. Some persons with physical disabilities may be accompanied by a personal support person.

Suggestions for interacting with persons with physical disabilities:

  • Remove obstacles and arrange furniture to ensure clear passage to where you will sit and conduct any meeting.
  • Consider an assistive device as an extension of the person’s personal space.
  • Remember that most power wheelchairs are controlled by a hand-held device and should be left for the individual to control.
  • If a conversation is expected to last longer than a few moments, suggest an area nearby that is comfortable for all parties to be seated.
  • Speak directly to the person, not to an accompanying support person.
  • If you are not sure what to do, ask, “Can I help?”

Access Service, Student Academic Success Service, University of Ottawa. Minimizing the impact of learning obstacles: A guide for professors.