A Person First Approach to Recreation

Interacting with People with Disabilities

June 7, 2013

National Center on Accessibility
National Center on Accessibility, Indiana University-Bloomington

“Two monologues do not make a dialogue.” Jeff Daly

Many people use leisure services as a means to relax and recover from the stresses of everyday life. In Terminology and People First Language, we discuss appropriate terms for interacting and referring to people with disabilities.  The professionals that provide recreation and leisure services need to be able to effectively communicate information and to treat all participants with equal respect.  Here are some more examples for interacting with people with disabilities as service providers in parks, recreation and tourism.


Concept: The first step to providing effective leisure services is to talk and interact with people who have disabilities with respect. The goal is to provide equal services and experiences regardless of the individual’s disability; to do that they should be treated like any other person.

Example: While working at welcome desk of the local aquatic center, a young woman arrives accompanied by her service dog. After greeting and thanking her for coming today, you may politely remind her of the policy on service animals. In many cases taking a dog into a pool area would be prohibited but in the case of service animals exceptions are made. Everyone benefits when staff are familiar with policy modifications to serve persons with disabilities.

Concept: A mutual understanding between guests with disabilities and service providers allows for respectful interactions, and a casual atmosphere. Being respectful of their personal space is important. The personal space can include any assistive devices like walking canes, wheelchairs, hearing-aids, etc. Consider these devices extensions of their body and should not be touched without expressed permission from the person with a disability.

Example: While on a trail in the park you come across a mother and her son who uses a manual wheelchair. The trail is paved concrete; however, it also has a fairly long and steep incline at this segment. First feeling might be to start helping the boy along the trail, because the trail is steep and the boy must want help. But that is only a feeling and generally people with disabilities prefer to ask or be asked before receiving assistance. Don’t make assumptions. Remember that people with disabilities are people. Do not walk up and physically touch them or their equipment, approach them as you would any other visitor and politely ask how they are doing and if you can provide any assistance.


Concept: Let the individuals speak for themselves instead of through other people in their party. Whether it is a parent, guardian, interpreter or friend if the question you have is for the person with a disability, direct the question to them.

Example: During a guided nature walk, an individual who has a hearing impairment approaches you to ask a question. With him is a sign-language interpreter to facilitate the conversation. While it is somewhat instinctual to conduct the verbal exchange of information with the sign language interpreter, it is appropriate and respectful to direct your response toward the person with a hearing impairment. The conversation is between you and the individual, not the interpreter.

Concept: People that have disabilities have a fair idea of what they can and cannot do. Therefore, the best management practice to accommodate such a diverse population as individuals with disabilities is to provide accurate and accessible information about the activity.

Example: The scheduled tour of the park is about to go underway. Some segments of the trail have steeper grade. One segment of trail in particular is more physically challenging than most due to the length of the slope. Many different people are in attendance including several with obvious impairments as well as an elderly couple. While the physical aspect of the tour is a concern, information on the demands of the tour is provided at all venues that advertise this activity. Additionally, by providing a final verbal reminder of the characteristics of the trial and length of the tour ensures that everyone participating is aware. Providing objective information on the conditions of the trail environment in advance enables all visitors to determine for themselves the appropriateness of the activity related to their individual abilities and interests.

Concept: Some individuals with disabilities have difficulty communicating verbally. It is acceptable and much more respectful to ask the individual to repeat him or herself rather than pretending to have understood them.

Example: At the park’s waterfront an individual with a speech impairment approaches and asks for assistance. However, because of his speech impairment he has difficulty pronouncing several key words and you are unsure what has been said. Respectfully ask him to repeat himself because you did not quite understand what was said. Be polite, make eye contact and speak clearly.


The Ten Commandments of Communicating with People with Disabilities – DVD & Resource Guide