12 Simple Ways to Be More Inclusive of People with Disabilities

Updated: Apr. 29, 2021

The world isn't always a friendly or accessible place for those with physical or intellectual differences. Here are several easy ways you can make a difference.

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Nearly 13 percent of Americans are living with disabilities, according to a recent report by the Institute on Disability (IOD) at the University of New Hampshire. Disabilities can be obvious, or invisible—some affect a person’s ability to get around, others can interfere with communication, stamina, or cognition. But no matter someone’s abilities or differences, every person deserves respect and equality; and each of us can help make that happen. Here’s how.

Hire someone

disability disabled wheelchair woman workHalfpoint / Shutterstock

If you’re an employer, consider the value of a person with a disability joining your team. “The disability community is one of the most overlooked talent pools in the labor force,” says Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc, an advocacy group for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities. About 40 percent of adults with disabilities under age 65 are employed, according to the IOD report, versus 77 percent of those without disabilities. “Hiring a person with disabilities can reduce turnover costs, increase productivity, and strengthen your company’s corporate culture.” One of the biggest misconceptions about people with disabilities is that they can’t or don’t want to work, says Tia Nelis, policy and advocacy director for TASH, an advocacy group for people with significant disabilities. “I believe we all can work if given a chance and the right supports. When you have people who believe in you and treat you like a person and not a label you will be surprised what people can do.”

If you see an opportunity to help, offer it

helping disabled person wheelchair help disabilitySajee Rod/ Shutterstock

Living with multiple sclerosis, Tony Lombardo—who runs the advocacy blog Let’s Hear Your Story—says that being more inclusive of folks with disabilities can be as simple as holding the door open for someone in a wheelchair. “If you see an opportunity to help, please do,” he says. Offer to help carry a package, or pull something down off of a high shelf in the grocery store. “And if someone says no thanks, they don’t need any help, don’t be offended—just say, ‘OK, have a good day!’ and move on.”

Go straight to the source

Something very important to remember when you’re talking to, working with, or otherwise interacting with a person with a disability is to talk directly to the person—don’t assume they can’t speak for themselves! “Too often, when a person with disabilities is out in public at a restaurant or doctor’s office for example, a question or conversation will be directed to the family member, friend, or caregiver who they are with, rather than to the individual,” says Berns. “That’s just not right.” A common misconception about people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) is that they’re not able to make their own decisions. “Like their peers without disabilities, people with I/DD should be presumed competent and have the right to control their own lives. They may need support from friends and family members, but don’t we all?”

Get connected

Just clicking “follow” or “share” on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram can help protect the rights of people with disabilities. “Follow and share social media posts of The Arc and other disability rights organizations,” says Berns. “A huge challenge facing the disability community is bringing our most critical issues into the national conversation. The more people outside of the disability community understand that we are in crisis in many ways, the more people understand that we are talking about basic human rights. Social media is powerful.”

Ask questions

Haley Moss is an attorney and artist who was diagnosed with autism as a preschooler. To her, inclusivity means asking people with disabilities to tell their own stories. “People can be more inclusive of autistics by asking our input and for our perspectives,” says Moss, author of A Freshman Survival Guide for College Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders: The Stuff Nobody Tells You About. “Oftentimes, the autism conversation is dominated by parents, educators, professionals, and others, without giving much voice to self-advocates. Additionally, people can ask questions to make things more sensory-friendly or engage us socially. Understand there are many ways to communicate.”

Remember: Some disabilities are invisible

Epilepsy, chronic fatigue syndrome, traumatic brain injury—these are all possible disabilities that you can’t see from the outside. So remember that the next time you see someone who looks able but is parking their car in a handicapped spot, says Lombardo. If someone has a placard on their review mirror, assume they need it. “Someone’s disability status is none of your business,” says Kim Nielsen, PhD, professor of disability studies at The University of Toledo. “Do not ask and do not assume one is parking in the handicapped spot because they are lazy.”

Volunteer, and bring your kids along

“I think it’s important for parents to encourage their children to be inclusive of people with disabilities beginning at a very young age,” says Norma Marlowe, mom to a 21-year-old man with moderate to severe autism. “This could be accomplished by modeling everyday acts of kindness and/or volunteering at nonprofits or events that serve people with disabilities. Some schools have a ‘buddy’ program, where a typical child helps a special needs child. This is also a wonderful way to build empathy and foster inclusion.” In other words, get to know people with disabilities who live and work in your community. “Whether they are your next-door neighbor, a bagger at the grocery store, or a parishioner in your church, say hello and ask them how they are doing. Invite them to participate in community activities,” says Berns. “Make a new friend.” And be sure not to make the mistake of saying something you shouldn’t to parents of children with special needs.

Extend an invitation

There are important large-scale moves to be made in order to make the world a better, fairer, and more accessible place for people with disabilities. But one of the simplest things you can do to be inclusive of family, friends, and acquaintances with disabilities, says Robert D. Sollars, a security consultant who has been blind since 2003, is to literally include them! “If you’re going to the store ask us if we want to go, or just tag along. If you’re going to the movies, ask us if we want to go,” he advises. “If you’re thinking about getting a group together for dinner or another activity, talk to us and see what ideas we may have. We just want to be a part of society, as much as our disability will allow us.” And don’t forget invitations for out-of-town fun, says John Morris, a passionate traveler who’s also a triple amputee and wheelchair user and founder of Wheelchairtravel.org. “The travel industry is becoming more accessible to people of all abilities,” says Morris. “When planning a trip with friends or family, be sure to include your disabled companions. Travel with a disability is no longer impossible!”

Put people first

Many advocates encourage the use of “people-first” language when writing or talking about people with disabilities. “People with disabilities are first and foremost people who have individual abilities, interests, and needs,” says Berns. “The language that society uses to refer to persons with disabilities shapes its beliefs and ideas about them. People First Language emphasizes the person, not the disability. For example, instead of saying ‘a disabled man,’ please refer to the person as ‘a man with a disability’ or ‘a man who has a disability.’ However, it is always best to respect how someone wants to refer to themselves if they indicate a preference. Better yet, refer to them by their name!” That said, some people have different preferences. “I believe first the most important thing to do is to ask the person themselves—there are so many ways now that people with disabilities would like to be talked about,” says Nelis. “So, the safe way is to ask the person or get to know the group you are talking to so then you know which way they prefer.”

Honor differences, don’t fear them

All of the experts and people with disabilities that The Healthy talked to had one piece of advice in common: Treat us like you do everyone else. “While people who are labeled disabled may not talk the same, think the same, or move in the same ways as people who do not have a disability, they have dreams and desires just as others do,” says Jay Klein, project director for the Alliance for Person-Centered Accessible Technologies at Arizona State University. “For example, a person who can’t see can still do all the same things that people with sight can do, they may just do these a little differently or may need some support to do certain things.”

Make your spaces accessible

If you’re planning a meeting or event, make sure your venue or space is accessible for people in wheelchairs or with other physical or intellectual differences, says Lynn Julian Crisci, an actor, a survivor of the Boston Marathon attack, and the Massachusetts ambassador for the US Pain Foundation. “For example, provide suggestions for one or more, sensory-friendly spaces for those who are easily overstimulated due to conditions such as autism and PTSD. If the weather is nice, suggest a quiet outdoor space with little foot or vehicle traffic. If the weather is bad, set aside a quiet room, for those with sensory difficulties, to detox from overstimulation.”

Pledge some cash

Your donations really do help make the world a more inclusive and accessible place for people with disabilities. “Nonprofit organizations like The Arc rely on generosity to continue our advocacy and to provide services to people with disabilities,” says Berns. “No donation is too small.”