British people as a whole are well-meaning and want to be seen as so. Known for an innate sense of politeness and tendency to apologise profusely, they feel it if they think they’ve offended. And yet people often get it completely muddled when asking questions about someone’s disability with disabled friends, family, customers or staff. There is widely-known, appropriate discourse and terminology and it’s really not that difficult. Yet a concern for transgressions often leads to long silences, completely ignoring the person in question, or panicked outbursts of very much the wrong thing to say, leaving the disabled person at worst feeling alienated and best eye-rollingly bemused.

Never is this more prevalent than when asking questions about someone’s disability. But fear not. If you are nodding sadly at this description of tongue-tied ineptitude then below are ETUK’s top tips for discussing someone’s disability in a way that won’t cause offence and won’t have them thinking you’re a bit of an eejit.

 Why are you asking?

 Before asking questions about someone’s disability pause and think, ‘Why am I asking?’

No one wants their disability to be the elephant in the room but is it relevant to the situation you’re in? Asking someone you meet down the pub how they go to the toilet when they’re in a wheelchair just reflects badly on you. And how well do you know this person?? Not everyone is happy to discuss their disability: it’s private! There are a few legitimate reasons for asking questions about someone’s disability (which we’ll get to in a minute) but otherwise, is it any of your business?

A woman wearing a striped black and white top stands before a pink background and raises her hands in a shrugging motion


When can you ask questions about someone’s disability?

There are times when it’s important to ask questions related to someone’s disability, but these are few. One would be around a person’s access issues. Do they need:

  • communication support
  • a ramp to enter the building
  • their work timetable to be changed as they feel the effects of their disability more in the morning/afternoon?

These are great questions to ask and show awareness and understanding. Notice that these questions focus on access requirements rather than the nature of their impairment. Knowing the name of someone’s medical condition is not pertinent nor necessary to support them, as everyone is affected differently.

Another time to discuss someone’s disability would be when performing a risk assessment. Disabled people don’t need a separate assessment but you may need to review your current assessment to ensure it covers any risks that may be present for them. Therefore, it will be essential to consult with them about what those are and this is key.

Don’t create blanket policies based on stereotypes of what is possible for a person with a disability. They are inaccurate and not applicable. Talk to the individual instead. For more information on creating a risk assessment with disabled people in mind, please look at the HSE pdf.

How are you asking questions about someone’s disability?

So you’ve reviewed your reasons for asking your employee, visitor etc. questions relating to their disability. The next step is to think about how you’re going to ask. Sensitivity is key.

“What’s wrong with you?” is not only rude but also suggests that the disability is somehow a failing on the person’s part rather than on the environment around them. Tell the person:

  • why you need to know. An open discussion on the challenges they face and how you can assist is much more positive. 
  • Remember to listen. Unless you share the same disability, it’s impossible to pre-empt the difficulties they may face and it’s crucial not to minimise their disability with a trivial comparison of your own.
  • Empathy not sympathy is what is needed.

If you’d like more information, follow us on Twitter @EnhanceTheUK for more practical tips or please contact us directly to enquire about our services.