Communicating with People with Disabilities

Many people who have disabilities will find comfort if you follow these guidelines when communicating with them.

Many people who have disabilities will appreciate it if you follow these guidelines when communicating with them.

General Considerations

  • Relax.  And don't be afraid you are going to make a mistake.  The person with the disability you are encountering will help you out.  That also means, listen.  You might learn something from them.
  • Treat adults as adults.  If the group is on a first name basis, so is the participant with the disability.  If others are treated formally, treat the participant with the disability the same.
  • Do not assume a person with a disability cannot do something.  If the issue comes up, let the person with the disability lead to the answer.
  • As in all things, treat a person with a disability the same as you would want to be treated.

Person First Language

  • It's the person with a disability you have contact with, not the disability.  Say "a person with a disability" rather than a disabled person.  Likewise, for example, a person is not an "old polio" or a "bipolar."  S/he is a person who had polio or is bipolar.
  • "Handicapped" has come to emphasize a person who wants or needs charity or pity.  That is rarely what people with disabilities want.  They want to be included equally with the rest of the community.  For many the term handicapped is offensive.
  • If the disability is not relevant to the story or conversation, why mention it?
  • Like handicapped, words like cripple, retarded, invalid, deaf and dumb, crazy and insane are insulting.  Use phrases like, person with a disability, a person who has an intellectual disability, emotional disorder, a person who is deaf or blind or has low vision, etc.

Common Courtesies

  • If you think a person with a disability might need help, you are free to offer it, but wait until your offer is accepted before you help.  Listen to any instructions the person may give.
  • Leaning on a person's wheelchair is like leaning or hanging on the person him or herself.  It is annoying and rude.
  • Share the same social courtesies with people with disabilities that you would with anyone else.  If you shake hands with other people, offer you hand to everyone you meet.  If a person is unable to shake your hand, he or she will let you know and you need not be embarrassed.
  • When offering assistance to a person with a visual impairment, allow that person to take your arm.  Do not come up from behind and push.  Use specific directions, such as "we're going to turn left down this hallway" or "we're going to turn right in about two yards."
  • When talking to a person who has a disability, speak directly to that person, not through a companion.
  • To get the attention of a person who has hearing loss, tap them on the shoulder or wave.  Look directly at the person and speak clearly, slowly and expressively to establish if they read lips.  Not all people with hearing loss can read lips.  Those that do, rely on facial expressions and body language for understanding.  Stay in the light and keep your hands from your face.  Shouting does not help.
  • Remember, when speaking about people with disabilities, portray them as they are in real life:  people who are sons, daughters, parents, friends, employees, neighbors, etc.


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