General Tips for Communicating with People with Disabilities
When introduced to a person with a disability, it is appropriate to offer to shake hands. People with limited hand use or who wear an artificial limb can usually shake hands. (Shaking hands with the left hand is an acceptable greeting.)
If you offer assistance, wait until the offer is accepted. Then listen to or ask for instructions.
Treat adults as adults. Address people who have disabilities by their first names only when extending the same familiarity to all others.
Relax. Don't be embarrassed if you happen to use common expressions such as "See you later," or "Did you hear about that?" that seem to relate to a person's disability.
Don't be afraid to ask questions when you're unsure of what to do.
Ask first. Don’t assume people need help. Ask if they need anything to make the process more effective or easier for them. They are the experts on their needs and how to best meet them. If they do request assistance, ask for specific instructions on how you can help. Be sure to ask if you don’t know what to do or what something means.
Keep an open mind. Don’t make assumptions about a person’s abilities. The individual is the best judge of what he or she can or cannot do. If a person has a speech impairment, don’t assume that person also has a hearing impairment or intellectual limitations.
Be direct. Make eye contact and speak to the person directly, even if their personal care attendant or interpreter is with them.
Speak like yourself. Use your normal volume and pace, unless they ask you to speak louder or slower.
Ask for help. If you don’t understand what someone is saying, ask the person to repeat it or offer another form of communication (such as paper and a pen or a computer) for clarification.
Be wheelchair-sensitive. If you’re working with someone who uses a wheelchair or mobility device, don’t lean on it. Also, if you’re speaking with them for a prolonged period of time, sit in a chair to be at their level. Never start to push someone's wheelchair without first asking the occupant’s permission.
Give visual aid. If you are working with someone who is visually impaired, clearly identify yourself when you first arrive and be sure to let him or her know when you’re leaving the conversation or room. Also, offer to read any written information. Give the person your arm and gently guide him or her if requested. When walking with a person who is visually impaired, allow that person to set the pace. If the person asks for or accepts your offer of help, don't grab his arm. It is easier for him to hold onto you.
Speak clearly, listen well. If you are working with a person who has a developmental disability, use clear sentences, simple words and concrete concepts. Gauge the pace, complexity and vocabulary of your speech to match his or hers. Stand in front of the person and use gestures to aid communication. And, unless you are informed otherwise, remember he or she can make his or her own decisions. Allow people with speech impairments to finish their own sentences. Don't talk for them or interrupt. Ask questions that permit short answers or a nod of the head. The other person always has the option of giving a longer response.
Don’t pet the dog. If you’re working with someone who has a service dog, ask permission before touching the animal.
Relax. Mistakes are human. Just be willing to learn from them.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, other laws and the efforts of many disability organizations have made strides in improving accessibility in buildings, increasing access to education, opening employment opportunities and developing realistic portrayals of persons with disabilities in television programming and motion pictures. Where progress is still needed is in communication and interaction with people with disabilities. Individuals are sometimes concerned that they will say the wrong thing, so they say nothing at all—thus further segregating people with disabilities. Listed here are some suggestions on how to relate to and communicate with and about people with disabilities.
Positive language empowers. When writing or speaking about people with disabilities, it is important to put the person first. Group designations such as "the blind," "the retarded" or "the disabled" are inappropriate because they do not reflect the individuality, equality or dignity of people with disabilities. Further, words like "normal person" imply that the person with a disability isn't normal, whereas "person without a disability" is descriptive but not negative. The accompanying chart shows examples of positive and negative phrases.
person with an intellectual, cognitive, developmental disability
retarded; mentally defective
person who is blind, person who is visually impaired
person with a disability
the disabled; handicapped
person who is deaf
the deaf; deaf and dumb
person who is hard of hearing
suffers a hearing loss
person who has multiple sclerosis
afflicted by MS
person with cerebral palsy
person with epilepsy, person with seizure disorder
person who uses a wheelchair
confined or restricted to a wheelchair
person who has muscular dystrophy
stricken by MD
person with a physical disability, physically disabled
crippled; lame; deformed
unable to speak, uses synthetic speech
person with psychiatric disability
person who is successful, productive
has overcome his/her disability; is courageous (when it implies the person has courage because of having a disability)
Tips for Communicating with Individuals with Mobility Impairments
If possible, put yourself at the wheelchair user's eye level.
Do not lean on a wheelchair or any other assistive device.
Never patronize people who use wheelchairs by patting them on the head or shoulder.
Do not assume the individual wants to be pushed —ask first.
Offer assistance if the individual appears to be having difficulty opening a door.
If you telephone the individual, allow the phone to ring longer than usual to allow extra time for the person to reach the telephone.
Tips for Communicating with Individuals with Cognitive Disabilities
If you are in a public area with many distractions, consider moving to a quiet or private location.
Be prepared to repeat what you say, orally or in writing.
Offer assistance completing forms or understanding written instructions and provide extra time for decision-making. Wait for the individual to accept the offer of assistance; do not "over-assist" or be patronizing.
Be patient, flexible and supportive. Take time to understand the individual and make sure the individual understands you.
Treat the individual with dignity, respect and courtesy.
Listen to the individual.
Offer assistance but do not insist or be offended if your offer is not accepted.
Information for this fact sheet came from the Office of Disability Employment Policy; the Media Project, Research and Training Center on Independent Living, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS; and the National Center for Access Unlimited, Chicago, IL.