Special Guest Article on Handshake Etiquette

Business man in wheelchair

By Linda Fitzpatrick, The Disability Etiquette Training Company

In Western culture the handshake is the customary and respectful method of introduction, yet some professionals are wary about offering the handshake to certain people with disabilities.

The person who has a Parkinson’s tremor may seem too fragile. The wife who is in a wheelchair may seem to be in a secondary position behind her able-bodied husband. It may not seem entirely appropriate to offer her your hand.

We may also assume, wrongly, that the person who is blind may not expect a handshake…or we may not know exactly how to manage offering a hand to a person who can’t see it.
Before we go into specifics let’s review some principles.

1. Always offer to shake hands.
2. Smile, make eye contact and be at eye level.
3. Be sure you have the full attention of the person you wish to shake hands with.
4. If a person with a disability is with a companion, be sure to shake hands with both people.
5. By necessity a handshake involves touching so if the person seems touch averse be prepared to be extra gentle or to step back. A simple touching of fingers may be enough to convey the customary respect.
6. Take your time and use the opportunity to form a thoughtful connection (thoughtful both in the sense of conscious and in the sense of kind).
7. See the person first, not the disability.

When shaking hands with a person in a wheelchair, bend or find a way to sit so that you can converse eye-to-eye. A person in a wheelchair may be fragile, for example if she has Cerebral Palsy or Rheumatoid Arthritis, so be extra careful to notice if her hands seem vulnerable. Pay attention to her expression and respond in kind. Don’t be afraid to offer a reassuring alternative: “Shall we touch fingers?”

A person who is deaf or hard of hearing may not realize that you are about to offer your hand. You may gain her attention by waving or by a light tap. People with hearing disabilities often complain about being handled too roughly – be aware that the merest suggestion of touch will be adequate to gain his attention.

If you are greeting a person who is blind, just say: “May I shake your hand?” and he will surely extend his. Depending on circumstances you may want to follow this introduction by inviting the person to sit…tapping the seat to “show” him where it is and informing him about his environs: “There’s a table to your left if you’d like to put your briefcase there.”

• Among the most discomfiting situations may be the case where you are greeting a person without hands, either due to birth defect or due to injury. Many Iraq veterans have had amputations of limbs, whether hands or feet or both.

It’s not uncommon to be taken aback for a moment, but let your good manners guide you to extend your hand in the customary greeting and let your customer or prospect guide you. Once again, the merest touch will complete this important gesture of acknowledgement and respect and will allow you to carry on your conversation having set a mutually respectful and accepting tone.

Other special situations may arise. For example if you are visiting a family with a grown son with Down Syndrome, you may shake hands with the parents and find that the son throws his arms around you in an exuberant hug! Depending on your own comfort level you can return the hug, or draw back and say something like: “It’s quite a surprise to get such a greeting, why don’t we just shake hands!”

Once again keep in mind the Seven Principles, remembering always to let good judgment and thoughtful manners be your ultimate guide!

By Linda Fitzpatrick (Ph. 845 353 4470)
Founding member of the not-for-profit www.entrepreneurswithdisabilities.org

Thanks to Linda for this excellent article which we featured in our newsletter. This is a topic that often comes up in our business etiquette presentations.

About the author 

Joanne Blake

Canadian speaker, corporate image consultant & business etiquette expert. If you're interested in booking a presentation, keynote or coaching, contact me. Based in Calgary / Edmonton, Alberta in western Canada.

  1. Hi Joanne and Terry, I work as a health care professional. Your article was very helpful and informative. I have a client that had been adversely affected when his mother took the drug Thalidomide in the 1960’s. Initially the drug was used to treat morning sickness. It was later discontinued after it was shown to cause serious malformations such as missing or shortened arms and legs. Thanks to your article I now know how to greet a person with a disability similar to the above client.

  2. Thanks John,
    I’m glad our post was helpful. Something we all need to be aware of and practice. Please feel free to share with other health care professionals in your circle.

  3. Thanks David.

    It is good to be reminded to acknowledge and treat others the same way we would like to be treated in similar situations. See the other person first works in all our interactions.

  4. This was a terrific article and one that needs to be further explored. I can now say this having personally discovered some of the many challenges involving people with disabilities. This article was an encouraging read indeed!

    My young wife truly appreciates those who accept her on equal ground despite her sudden and obvious outside appearances. Eye contact and an extended hand express so much to all of us regardless of health circumstances. And a warm hug goes a long way!

    There is no need to feel awkward when meeting people with disabilities yet so many of us are uncomfortable with things we know little about.

    The more one can educate themselves’ the better rounded professional image we can portray. Handling difficult situations with grace and dignity is a true sign of confidence within. In our busy world it’s nice to see that people do still genuinely care as well!

    My wife has managed to recoup some of her voice following a serious Brain Stem Stroke several years ago. The sound of her voice could be misconstrued with some type of comprehension difficulty but nothing could be further from the truth! Many are caught off guard when they take the time to really listen. For those who wish to stare with blank faces at her when we glide through the malls she is quick to give them the crossed eyeballs look. This usually helps break the ice and snap them back into reality.

    Even some of the Doctors had a hard time accepting that everything was “right” upstairs and mistakenly assumed there was something “missing” by the speech impediment. So it is of no surprise when the general public meets someone for the first time and fumbles for comfort.

    Everyone reading this article will benefit as all of us will surely face challenges of one type or the other down the road.

    Thank you Linda Fitzpatrick for enlightening the general public on this sensitive subject. And of course thank you Terry and Joanne (Style for Success) for including this in your Newsletter. I never miss an issue!

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