The Platinum Rule: Disability Etiquette in Daily Life

This summer, I helped with a mock interview workshop in which some of the participants were visually impaired.  That experience reminded me that even today, not everyone is confident they understand what constitutes “good manners” when interacting with individuals with disabilities.

Many people have little or no experience of meeting, working or communicating with people with disabilities and may be apprehensive about having an individual with a disability in the classroom or as an employee, coworker or customer simply because they are fearful they will say or do the wrong thing.

Individuals with disabilities may also be apprehensive about what the classroom, or workplace environment will be like and about the attitudes of those they will interact with when they begin classes or employment. Therefore they are sometimes reluctant to express a need or concern. The result is that nothing is said—thus further isolating individuals from one another. Communication and good manners (etiquette) go a long way to dispelling apprehension and misperceptions.

I’ve written about disability etiquette” and offered training for staff at my institution, but the opportunity this summer reminded me that it never hurts to have a disability etiquette refresher.

The word “etiquette”  comes from old French and describes  a set of written and unwritten rules that govern socially acceptable behavior under a variety of circumstances in a particular culture at a particular time. Typically, these rules, based upon social norms, are not codified in criminal or civil law; but rather are enforced at an individual level by fear of community disapproval.

“Disability etiquette”, then, is a misnomer; guidelines addressing how to approach people with disabilities were initially created to challenge social conventions rather than to reinforce them.  Misnomer or not, it seems to me that the “rules” of disability etiquette are an expression of the Platinum Rule.

If you are unfamiliar with The Platinum Rule, it is a moral principle related to the Golden Rule:  “People should treat others as they would like to be treated, instead of – as the Gold Rule dictates – projecting yourself onto others and treating them as you would like to be treated.”

I’ve also seen the Platinum Rule expressed this way: “Treat others well  because they are living a different life [than you are].” (Bracketed material my emphasis.)

The Platinum Rules for Disability Etiquette

  • Don’t focus on the individual’s disability
  • Don’t treat successful individuals with disabilities as “super-heroes.”
  • Don’t “sensationalize” a disability by the language you use. (e.g. “crippled with,” “afflicted with,” suffers with, etc.)
  • Don’t use generic labels for disability groups, (e.g., the deaf,” “the retarded” etc.)
  • Emphasize abilities, not limitations. (Similarly, do not use emotional descriptors such as unfortunate, pitiful, etc)
  • Don’t use condescending euphemisms. This is rude and offensive. (e.g., physically inconvenienced, and physically challenged
  • Show people with disabilities as active participants of society.


WINAHEAD is made up of representatives from thirty institutions. Our members are professionals employed by two- and four-year colleges and universities who work directly with students with disabilities to ensure equal access to higher education. WIN indicates the geographic area we represent: Western Iowa and Nebraska. AHEAD is our national parent organization, the Association on Higher Education and Disability.
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