When we see a disabled person struggling with a door, or other challenge in public, some of us freeze, worrying that stepping in may be perceived as an insult or slight. Others lunge in to “help” before we know exactly what the person might need.

What’s the correct course of action? Start with a question: Can I help you? And if the answer is yes, follow up with: How can I help? That’s the advice of Nadine Vogel, CEO of Springboard Consulting, who recently spoke with Novant Health team members about interacting with disabled people to make sure they feel welcome in every setting – whether they’re patients or colleagues.

The importance of treating the disabled with care and respect is becoming more important by the day. People with disabilities are the fastest growing minority in the U.S., Vogel said. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 1 out of every 5 adults has a disability.

Vogel’s advice for common situations where many of us aren’t sure what to do:

  • Regardless of the moment, if you’re not sure what to do, ask a question. Never assume.
  • Shake the prosthetic right hand, rather than reaching for the left, natural arm. Shake the forearm if the person is missing a hand.
  • Don’t say or use the phrase “confined to a wheelchair.” That chair provides freedom. Just say the person “uses a wheelchair.”
  • If you’re in conversation with someone using a wheelchair, find a way to talk to them at eye level rather than literally talking down to them.
  • If your child sees someone with a deformity, explain that it’s not polite to stare. But, don’t just tell them to look away, as if the person doesn’t exist. No one wants to feel invisible. If your child blurts out a question to someone, give that person a chance to answer. Questions are natural and many people with disabilities are happy to help children understand.
  • We all know not to pet a service dog. If you’re with someone who has a service dog, walk on the opposite side to give the dog the room to do its job. Don’t go overboard with questions about the animal. Some people with service animals don’t want to engage in “show and tell” about their dog.
  • Some of us talk to people with Down syndrome like they’re babies. Don’t do that.
  • Don’t treat someone with a disability as a “disability hero” to be constantly celebrated for overcoming their challenges. We all want to be treated as individuals and recognized for being ourselves.


Novant Health recognizes that every person is different and shaped by unique life experiences, enabling us to better understand our team members and the communities we serve. Learn more about our commitment, our team members and events.