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Disability Etiquette and Interviewing Tips

Disability Etiquette and Interviewing Tips
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Definition of disability

In many ways, interviewing a person with a disability is no different than interviewing a non-disabled person.  Exhibiting courtesy, respect, thoughtfulness and professionalism are key to any successful interview – regardless of who is sitting across from you.

Yet, there are certain etiquette and practical tips that once mastered, will serve to put you and your interviewee at ease; project a positive, forward-thinking image of yourself and your company; and ultimately assure an interview that is focused on the person, their skills and abilities.

Browse the topics below for specific, tried and true techniques in assuring a successful interview of a person with a disability.

Or, watch a self-paced online training on interviewing etiquette called Diversity: Creating a Workplace that Works. It's part of our HR training series. Feel free to skip to the topics that interest you.

First, A Few Etiquette Basics
Scheduling Etiquette
Reception Etiquette
Interviewing Tips
Interviewing a person using Mobility Aids
Interviewing a person with Vision Impairments
Interviewing a person with Speech Disorder
Interviewing a person who is Deaf or Hard of Hearing
Glossary of Acceptable Terms

Here's an illustrated downloadable booklet on Disability Etiquette from the United Spinal Association.

First, A Few Etiquette Basics

Relax!  Remember that a person who has a disability is a person–like anyone else. If you don't know what to do or say, allow the person who has a disability to help put you at ease.

Assume nothing.  If you have a question about what to do, how to do it, what language or terminology to use, what assistance to offer, ask the person with the disability. That person should be your first and best resource, and he or she shares responsibility to make others aware when assistance is required.

When talking or writing about persons with disabilities, emphasize the person, not the disability. For example, a person is not an epileptic but rather a person who has epilepsy. Avoid labeling people with the name of a condition or as part of a disability group.

Treat each person as an individual, with unique needs, talents and abilities. Just because a person has a disability, does not mean his or her needs are the same as anyone else with that same disability.

Remember this: the greatest obstacle that people with disabilities face in life can be the negative attitude of others!

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Scheduling Etiquette

When Setting up an onsite interview with a person with a disability, some consideration should be made to ensure their Accessibility to interview area.  Make sure the place where the interview is to be conducted is accessible by checking the following:

When scheduling interviews for persons with disabilities, consider their needs ahead of time:

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Reception Etiquette

Employers should provide an environment that is accessible to both existing and prospective employees. Attention to accessibility starts with an employer’s first contact with job applicants, continues throughout the interviewing and hiring process, and includes all forms of communication – telephone calls, faxes, e-mails, and of course personal visits to an employer’s facilities.

Below are some recommended guidelines for staff who will be involved in greeting, directing, and assisting applicants with disabilities during their visits to an employer’s facility. 

Respect the person’s right to reject help or to indicate the kind of help needed.  If you cannot assist in the way that is asked, be open and honest in discussing this with the person with the disability.  Ask that person for alternatives.

Appreciate what the person can do.  Remember that difficulties the person may be facing may stem more from society's attitudes and barriers than from the disability itself.

Be considerate of the extra time it might take for a person with a disability to get things said or done.  Let the person set the pace in walking or talking.

Unless it is necessary, avoid moving a wheelchair, crutches, or other mobility aids out of reach of a person who uses them.  If it is absolutely necessary to move mobility aids for safety or accessibility reasons, you should politely address the issue by asking permission.  Example: "Because space is so limited here, would you mind if we moved you crutches over here for now?"

Never push a wheelchair without first asking the occupant if you may do so.  Before deciding whether or not to push a wheelchair up or down a step, curb, or other obstruction, ask the person if and how he or she wants you to proceed; and be aware of your own limitations.

When speaking with someone who uses a wheelchair, sit down or kneel to place yourself at his or her eye level.  Again, understand that leaning on a person’s wheelchair is an invasion of their personal space.

If the person is lip-reading, look directly at him or her.  Speak normally, and assure them that they can let you know if they aren’t able to understand you.  Make sure you can be seen and keep hands and food away from your mouth.

When greeting someone with a vision disability, identify yourself and anyone else who might be with you.  Ask, "may we shake hands?"  Be aware that some individuals with vision impairments are protective of their hands and prefer not to shake hands.  Let the person know if you move or need to end the conversation.  When guiding a person, offer your arm for them to hold, never take hold of their arm to "steer" them.  Warn the person of obstacles in their path by describing the obstacle and location, using the positions of the clock.  Example: "there’s a row of chairs at one o’clock".

Don’t worry about using common expressions such as "See ya’ later", or "Gotta run".

When speaking with someone with mental retardation, use simple, yet not childish, language.

Give your undivided attention to someone who has difficulty speaking.  Ask short questions that require short answers.  If you cannot understand the person, ask if they would like to try an alternative way of communicating with you, such as writing on a pad of paper.

Service Animal Etiquette:

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Interviewing Tips

Conduct interviews in a manner that emphasizes abilities, achievements and individual qualities.  Conduct your interview as you would with anyone.  Never assume that just because an applicant has a disability that they will not be able to perform certain job functions. 

You cannot legally ask an applicant if they have a disability, but you can ask if they are able to perform a job with or without accommodations.  Here is suggested language for an application form:

"Are you able to perform the essential functions of the position for which you are applying, either with or without reasonable accommodations? Yes/No

If necessary, please describe what type(s) of reasonable accommodations are needed:

If the applicant checks a box and provides a description, you can follow up by asking questions about the accommodation(s) they have suggested.  Here are some examples of appropriate and inappropriate questions:

Applicant who is deaf
Inappropriate:  "Are you going to be okay working in the warehouse even though you’re deaf? My other crew members listen for the forklift alarm to let them know it’s coming, but how would you know to get out of the way?"

Appropriate:  "In the warehouse we have many safety concerns.  Our workers are always listening for the forklift alarm to warn them to get out of its path.  Do you have any suggestions to make our workplace more deaf-friendly?"

Applicant who uses a wheelchair
Inappropriate:  "This job requires the employee to lift a computer printout weighing 25 pounds from a table and move it to a desk.  Since you’re in a wheelchair, I have to wonder if you’re able to lift 25 pounds?"

Appropriate:  "This position requires moving a computer printout weighing 25 pounds from a table onto a desk.  Do you foresee any difficulty in performing that task? If so, do you have any suggestions how that task can be performed?"

Interviewers should conduct a tour of the job site with all applicants to ensure that they understand the essential functions of the job and to identify any accessibility issues.  At the least, interviewers must know whether or not the job site is accessible and should be prepared to answer accessibility-related questions.

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Interviewing a person using Mobility Aids

Enable people who use crutches, canes or wheelchairs to keep them within reach.  Be aware that some people who use wheelchairs may choose to transfer themselves out of their wheelchairs (into an office chair, for example) for the duration of the interview.  Here again, when speaking to a person in a wheelchair or on crutches for more than a few minutes, sit in a chair to place yourself at that person’s eye level to facilitate conversation.

Ensure that the person can easily access the interview area, and be prepared to move to a more accessible area if necessary.

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Interviewing a person with Vision Impairments

When greeting a person with a vision impairment always identify yourself and introduce anyone else who might be present.  If the person does not extend their hand to shake hands, verbally extend a welcome.  Be aware that some individuals with vision impairments are protective of their hands and prefer not to shake hands.

When offering seating, place the person’s hand on the back or arm of the seat.  A verbal cue is helpful as well.

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Interviewing a person with Speech Disorder

Give your whole attention when talking to a person who has a speech disorder.

Ask short questions that require short answers or a nod of the head.  Do not pretend to understand if you do not.  Try rephrasing what you wish to communicate, or ask the person to repeat what you do not understand. 
Do not raise your voice.  Most people with a speech disorder can hear and understand.

Keep your manner encouraging rather than correcting.  Avoid the temptation to complete sentences for the person.

Repeat back the interviewee’s statements to confirm that you understood them.  Another technique is to rephrase the interviewee’s comments in the form of a question.  The person’s response will help guide you to understanding precisely what they intended to say.  Remember that open-ended questions are usually more appropriate and productive than closed-ended questions.

Closed-ended question:
"You were a tax accountant in ABC Company for seven years.  Is that correct?"
(Answered by a "yes" or "no"). 

Open-ended question:
"Tell me more about your seven years of experience as a tax accountant for ABC – what were your most interesting challenges?"
(Confirms the information, and invites the person to provide more details.)

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Interviewing A Person Who Is Deaf Or Hard of Hearing

If the interviewee can read lips, look directly at him or her.  Speak clearly at a normal pace.  Do not exaggerate your lip movements or shout.  Shouting distorts sounds accepted through hearing aids and also inhibits lip reading.  Speak expressively because the person will rely on your facial expressions, gestures and eye contact.  (Note: it is estimated that only four out of ten spoken words are visible on the lips.  Thus the rate of accuracy for persons who lip-read is only about 40%). 

Place yourself near a light source and keep your hands and food away from your mouth when speaking.  Brief, concise written notes may be very helpful to aid communication. 

Some individuals who are hard of hearing use Assistive Listening Devices (ALD’s); you may be asked to use a microphone that will assist the individual in bringing your voice to their hearing aid or to other sound boosting ear equipment.

In the United States most deaf people use American Sign Language (ASL).  ASL is not a universal language.  ASL is a language with its own syntax and grammatical structure. 

When scheduling an interpreter for a non-English speaking person, be certain to retain an interpreter who is fluent in the desired language of the person being assisted.  Although it is common protocol for an interpreter to sit next to the interviewer, it is most appropriate to consider the personal preference of the interviewee, and for the interpreter to sit where it’s most comfortable for the applicant.  Interpreters facilitate communication only; they should not be consulted or regarded as a reference for the person who is deaf or hard of hearing.

When seeking ASL interpreting services, it is of the utmost importance to seek a trained, qualified interpreter who can facilitate accurate communication.  Many people consider themselves to be competent interpreters, although they have little or no formal training.  The title of "Interpreter" applies only to an individual who has completed an accredited training program and can demonstrate fluency in American Sign Language.

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Glossary Of Acceptable Terms

Disability etiquette starts with our language: the choice of words we use can reflect either a negative or positive attitude, and can unintentionally embarrass or even insult an individual or group. While there are no hard and fast rules, here is a list of generally acceptable terms and their acceptable application when used to discuss issues related to disabilities:

Consider this:
Many disability groups do not like using euphemisms to describe disabilities. They consider terms such as "partially sighted", "differently abled", "mentally different", and "physically challenged", to be patronizing. Also avoid using words like courageous, brave, and inspirational. Adapting to a disability does not necessarily mean acquiring those traits of bravery and courage. For example, it doesn’t take "courage" to wear glasses or contact lenses to correct eyesight, nor is it necessarily a courageous act to use a wheelchair for mobility. Always consider the dignity of the individual.

Disability:  A general term used for functional limitation that interferes with a person’s ability, for example, to walk, lift, heal, or learn. It may refer to a physical, sensory or mental condition. Do not refer to people with disabilities as the handicapped, handicapped persons, or special. Handicap can be used when citing laws and situations, but should never be used to describe a person or disability. Say as a descriptive noun or adjective, such as “a person living with AIDS”, “woman who is blind”, or “man with a disability”.

Nondisabled:  This is the appropriate term for people without disabilities. “Normal”, “able-bodied”, “temporarily able-bodied”, “healthy”, or “whole” are inappropriate.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD):  A syndrome of learning and behavioral problems that is not caused by any serious underlying physical or mental disorder and is characterized especially by difficulty in sustaining attention, impulsive behavior, and usually by excessive activity. Say “person with ADHD”.

Autism:  A mental disorder originating in infancy that is characterized by absorption in self-centered subjective mental activity, especially when accompanied by marked withdrawal from reality, inability to interact socially, repetitive behavior, and language dysfunction. Say “person with autism”.

Blind:  Describes a condition in which a person has loss of vision for ordinary life purposes. Visually impaired is the generic term used by some individuals to refer to all degrees of vision loss. Say:  “boy who is blind”, “girl who is visually impaired”, or “man who has low vision”.

Brain Injury:  A condition where there is long-term or temporary disruption in brain function resulting from injury to the brain. Difficulties with cognitive, physical, emotional, and/or social functioning may occur. Do not say brain damaged. Say “person with a brain injury”, “woman who has sustained a brain injury”, or “boy with an acquired brain injury”.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome:  This term can also be called chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome. It describes a serious chronic condition in which individuals experience six or more months of fatigue accompanied by physical and cognitive symptoms. Do not use terms such as Yuppie Flu, malingering, and hypochondria as they are pejorative, imply personality disorders, and are not scientifically supportive. Say “person with chronic fatigue syndrome”.

Cleft Lip:  A specific congenital disability involving the lip and gum. The term harelip is anatomically incorrect and stigmatizing. Say “a person who has a cleft lip or a cleft palate”.

Congenital or Birth Disability:  A disability that has existed since birth, but is not necessarily hereditary. The terms birth defect and deformity are inappropriate. Say “a person with a congenital disability”.

Deaf:  Refers to a profound degree of hearing loss that prevents understanding speech through the ear. Hearing impaired or hearing loss are generic terms used by some individuals to indicate any degree of hearing loss from mild to profound. These terms include people who are hard of hearing and deaf. However, some individuals completely disfavor the term hearing impaired. Others prefer to use deaf or hard of hearing. Hard of hearing refers to a mild to moderate hearing loss that may or may not be corrected with amplification. Say “a woman who is deaf”, “boy who is hard of hearing”, “individuals with hearing losses”, and “people who are deaf or hard of hearing”.

Developmental Disability:  Any mental and/or physical disability starting before the age of 22 and continuing indefinitely. It limits one or more of major life activities such as self-care, language, learning, mobility, self-direction, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency. Thus includes individuals with mental retardation, cerebral palsy, autism, epilepsy, and other seizure disorders, sensory impairments, congenital disabilities, traumatic injuries, or conditions caused by disease (polio, muscular dystrophy, ect.). It may also be the result of multiple disabilities. Say “person with a developmental disability”.

Disfigurement:  Refers to changes caused by burns, trauma, disease, or congenital conditions. Do not say, “burn victim”. Say “burn survivor”, “adult with burns”, or “child with burns”.

Down's syndrome:  A chromosome disorder that usually causes a delay in physical, intellectual, and language development. Usually results in mental retardation. Mongol, Mongoloid, and Downs child/person are unacceptable. Say “person with Down syndrome”.

HIV/AIDS:  Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is an infectious disease resulting in the loss of the body’s immune system to ward off infections. The disease is cause by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). A positive test for HIV can occur without symptoms of the illness that usually develop up to 10 years later, including tuberculosis, reoccurring pneumonia, cancer, recurrent vaginal yeast infections, intestinal ailments, chronic weakness and fever, and profound weight loss. When referring to someone with HIV or AIDS, say, “people living with HIV”, “people living with AIDS” or “living with AIDS”.

Learning Disability:  A permanent condition that affects the way an individual takes in, retains, and expresses information. Some groups prefer specific learning disability, because it emphasizes that only certain learning processes are affected. Do not say slow learner, retarded, ect., which are different from learning disabilities. Say “person with a learning disability”.

Mental Disability:  The Federal Rehabilitation Act (section 504) lists four categories under mental disability:  psychiatric disability, retardation, learning disability, or cognitive impairment as acceptable terms. Always precede these terms with, “person with . . . .”

Mental Retardation:  Refers to substantial intellectual delay that requires environmental or personal supports to live independently. Mental retardation is manifested by below-average intellectual functioning in two or more life areas (work, education, daily living, ect.) and is present before the age of 18. Don’t use subnormal or the retarded. Say “people with mental retardation”.

Multiple Chemical Sensitivities:  A chronic condition of irritation or inflammation of sensory organs, gastrointestinal distress, fatigue, and compromised neurological function triggered by contact with low level exposure to common substances including pesticides, petroleum-based products, perfumes, detergent residues, foods and food chemicals. Do not use hypersensitive or hysterical to describe a person with this condition. Say “a person with chemical intolerance” or “a person with environmental illness”.

Post-polio Syndrome:  A condition that affects persons who have had poliomyelitis (polio) long after recovery from the disease and that is characterized by muscle weakness, joint and muscle pain, and fatigue. Do not use “polio victim”. Say “a person with post-polio syndrome”.

Psychiatric Disability:  Psychotic, schizophrenic, neurotic, and other specific terms should be used only in proper clinical context and should be checked carefully for medical and legal accuracy. Words such as crazy, maniac, lunatic, demented, schizo, and psycho are offensive and should never be applied to people with mental health problems or anyone else. Acceptable terms are “people with psychiatric disabilities”, “people with psychiatric illnesses”, emotional disorders, or mental disorders.

Seizure:  An involuntary muscular contraction, a brief impairment or loss of consciousness, ect., resulting from a neurological condition such as epilepsy or from an acquired brain injury. The term convulsion should be used only for seizures involving contraction of the entire body. Do not use fit, spastic, or attacks. Rather than “epileptic”, say “girl with epilepsy”, or “boy with a seizure disorder”.

Small/Short Stature:  Describes people under 4’10” tall. Do not refer to these individuals as dwarfs or midgets, which implies a less than full adult status in society. Dwarfism is an accepted medical term, but it should not be used as general terminology. Say “persons of small (or short) stature”. Some groups prefer the term “little people”.

Speech Disorder:  A condition where a person has limited or difficult speech patterns. Do not use “mute” or “dumb”. Use “child who has a speech disorder”. For a person with no verbal capability, “say woman without speech”.

Spinal Cord Injury:  Describes a condition in which there has been permanent damage to the spinal cord. Quadriplegia denotes substantial or significant loss of function in all four extremities. Paraplegia refers to substantial or significant loss of function in the lower part of the body only. Say “man with paraplegia”, “woman who is paralyzed”, or “person with a spinal cord injury”.

Stroke:  This is caused by an interruption of blood to the brain. Hemiplegia (paralysis on one side) may result. “Stroke survivor” or “person who has had a stroke” is preferred over “stroke victim”.

Substance Dependence:  Patterns of substance use that result in impairment in at least three life areas (family, employment, health, ect.) over any 12-momnth period. Substance dependence is general characterized by impaired control over consumption, preoccupation with the substance, and denial of impairment in life areas. Substance dependence may include physiological dependence/tolerance withdrawal. Although such terms as alcoholic and addict are medically acceptable, they may be derogatory to some individuals. Acceptable terms are “people who are substance dependent” or “people who are alcohol dependent”. An individual, who has a history of dependence on alcohol and/or other drugs and is no longer using alcohol or drugs, may identify themselves as “recovering” or as “a person in recovery”.

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This information was developed in partnership with the EmployABILITY program of the City of Los Angeles Community Development Department, created in collaboration with the Los Angeles City Workforce Investment Board, to create career empowerment for persons with disabilities.

Employability Partnership       Workforce Investment Board       Work Source California Building Business and Careers