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How to treat people with illnesses and disabilities

Women talking to a girl in a wheelchair.

Treat a friend with a disability or illness just like you would any other friend. Your friend may want to talk about their condition; then again, your friend may not. You can let them know you care by telling them you will listen any time they feel like talking. If you’re meeting someone new, you may need to figure out how to act. You can ask the person if she wants any help and talk about the usual things you talk about with anyone new.

How to treat someone with a health issue arrow top

  • Before you give help, ask if the person needs it. The person may want to do things for herself.
  • It's okay to ask friends or classmates about their illnesses or disabilities. But don't be offended if your friend doesn't want to talk about it.
  • Don't be afraid to ask questions if you are not sure how to act.
  • Invite friends or classmates with illnesses or disabilities to sleepovers and birthday parties, and to hang out. Think about ways to make sure they can be included in the things you do.
  • Ask your parents not to park in places reserved for people with disabilities.
  • When you go to restaurants and shopping malls, check to see if a friend with an illness or disability could be there with you. If not, you can be a good friend by asking the manager to put in ramps, get raised numbers for the elevators, or have Braille menus printed.
  • Kids with illnesses or disabilities can have it tough sometimes. Be friendly and welcoming to them. And if you see them being bullied, get help.

Some tips adapted from Friends Who Care, Easter Seals Disability Services

How to handle specific disabilities arrow top

  • Remember that just because people use wheelchairs, it doesn't mean they are sick. Many people who use wheelchairs are otherwise healthy and strong.
  • When you're talking with a friend in a wheelchair, try to come down to his or her level — kneel down or pull up a chair.
  • Don't lean on a wheelchair or touch it without asking. Don’t push it without asking either.
  • It's okay to use words like "see," "hear," "walk," and "run" when you're talking with friends who have disabilities.
  • It's okay to ask people who have speech problems to repeat what they said if you didn't understand the first time. You can also try repeating what you think they said and they can reply "yes" or "no."
  • If you're talking with someone who has a speech problem, try to ask questions that require only short answers or a nod of the head.
  • If an interpreter is helping you speak to a deaf person, talk to the deaf person, not the interpreter.
  • If a deaf person is going to be reading your lips, they need to see your face. Make sure you have their attention before you start talking. Keep your hands away from your face and avoid chewing gum. Use short, simple sentences. You might try writing instead, if that’s easier.
  • Don't speak loudly when talking to blind people. They hear as well as you do.
  • If you need to guide a blind person, give the person your arm instead of grabbing on to hers.
  • When you’re talking with a blind person, tell him when you’re leaving or he won’t know.
  • Don't pet or play with service dogs without first asking the owner if it’s okay.
  • Remember that just because a person has a learning disability, it doesn’t mean they’re stupid. They could be really bright and just may learn differently from you.
  • When you’re talking with someone with limited intellectual abilities, be patient. Give that person time to process what you’ve said and respond. You might keep your sentences short and simple. If you are in a public area with many distractions, consider moving to a quiet or private location.
  • If an adult has an intellectual disability, still treat them as an adult.

Some tips adapted from Friends Who Care, Easter Seals Disability Services

Talking about people with health issues arrow top

What you call something — or someone — matters. When writing or speaking about people with illnesses or disabilities, try not to use the condition to define them. That way you show that you know there’s a lot more to the person than just their illness or disability. So, instead of saying something like “the mentally disabled,” say, “people who have mental disabilities.” Here are some more examples:

Instead ofUse
The disabled; handicapped; crippled; lame; deformedPeople with disabilities
The blindPeople who are blind (or visually impaired)
The deafPeople who are deaf
Confined to a wheelchairUses a wheelchair
Dumb; muteUnable to speak
Is autisticHas autism
Cerebral palsy victimPerson who has cerebral palsy


Content last reviewed February 16, 2011
Page last updated October 31, 2013