A big thank you to Mosiac of Connecticut for sharing this piece.
Tips for Communicating with Persons with Disabilities
Communication involves speech, language and processing. Different types of disabilities impact communication differently. Cognitive disabilities, for example, impact the processing of information and not necessarily the speech. The same communication assistive device will not be appropriate for every type of disability.
A person who has a disability is a person who is entitled to the dignity, consideration, respect and rights you expect for yourself.
Do not be afraid to make a mistake when communicating with someone with a disability. Anticipate how you would react if you were in a similar situation.
Treat adults as adults. Address people with disabilities by their first names only when extending the same familiarity to all others present. Never patronize people with disabilities by patting them on the head or shoulder.
Take time to listen. If your agency has a policy regarding standard session times (e.g., one hour in length), adaptations may need to be made. Shorter sessions over longer periods may reduce frustration for some clients. Adapt to the individual; not everyone will need extra time.
Relax. If you don’t know what to do, allow the person who has a disability to help guide you. Ask the person what support they need from you.
If you offer assistance and the person declines, do not insist. If it is accepted, ask how you can best help, and then follow their direction. Do not take over.
If someone with a disability is accompanied by another individual, address the person with the disability directly rather than speaking “through” the other person.
In general, if individuals are upset, they are more difficult to understand. For victims of sexual violence, it might be helpful to initially talk about something other than the trauma that they experienced to become familiar with their communication patterns. Sometimes working as a team can be helpful in trying to understand a client, as long as it is not embarrassing for the client—either by asking if there is someone the client trusts to assist or by involving someone else on your staff.
Speak naturally. It’s fine to use common expressions like “I see” or “see you later” with a person who is blind, or “let’s walk over here” with a person who uses a wheelchair.
When communicating with individuals who use a wheelchair, sit at their level. Do not touch the wheelchair and, if you inadvertently bump into their wheelchair, excuse yourself as you would if you bumped into another person. Wheelchairs and other mobility devices are often considered an extension of the person and should be treated as such.
Use terminology that places the person before the disability (instead of “an epileptic,” use “a person with epilepsy”). Refer to the person first and then the situation, illness or disability—if that information is relevant to the conversation.5 (See Disabilities 101. Person First Language.)
By being fully present to persons with disabilities, you can build rapport with them. If you show them you are caring and want to understand their situation, they will be more likely to open up to you. Do not make assumptions about a person’s abilities and needs based on her appearance.6
Have a plan for the next steps in communicating. For example, onsider in advance ways to respond in a variety of situations with clients, such as when someone calls for help in a crisis but cannot clearly communicate her needs.
Remember these keys to communication: (1) Be honest—It’s acceptable to tell a person you do not understand the message she is trying to communicate to you; and (2) ask if there is anything you can do to make the interaction better.7,8