Section 12: Communicating effectively with people with disability
Many people feel uncomfortable communicating with people with disabilities. They may:
- be unsure of the correct terminology to use
- be worried about offending the person with a disability
- be unfamiliar with appropriate communication strategies and/or
- have had a previous difficult experience.
This Section aims to provide some practical advice and helpful tips to help you feel more confident communicating with people with disability.
Positive versus negative language
|The good||The bad|
|Person with a disability||disabled/deaf/blind/crippled/retarded person|
|Person who uses a wheelchair||confined/victim/sufferer/ restricted/wheelchair bound|
|Person with a mental illness||crazy/nuts/psycho|
|Person who is successful||brave/heroic/inspirational|
|Accessible parking, bathroom||disabled parking, bathroom|
|Person without a disability||normal person, person with ability|
General tips for communicating with people with disability
- Relax - People with disability are just people.
- Speak to people with disability as a person first.
- Speak to adults with disability as adults.
- Don't make assumptions about a person's disability
- e.g. don't assume a person using a wheelchair is paralysed.
- Don't make assumptions about what a person with disability can or can't do.
- If a person has one disability don't assume they have another
- e.g. don't yell at a person who has a vision impairment or
- e.g. don't assume a person with a speech impairment has an intellectual disability.
- Ask before you help and respect a person's right to refuse your help. People with a disability have their own way of doing things.
- Take the time to listen to people with a disability – you may learn a lot. If you can't understand what a person is saying don't pretend – just ask them again.
- Always speak directly to the person with a disability. If the person is with a carer or interpreter do not direct your conversation at them.
Tips for communicating with people with learning disabilities
- Use short, clear and direct sentences.
- Rephrase information if it is not understood, or present it differently.
- Consider using visual aids like diagrams or pictures.
- Always provide opportunity to answer any questions.
Tips for communicating with people with autism spectrum disorders
- Avoid using humour, sarcasm, figures of speech or colloquialisms.
- Use simple and short sentences and closed questions.
- Be aware that body language may not be understood.
- Use words that are flexible – 'we may' NOT 'we will'.
Tips for communicating with people with physical disability
- Do not shout, speak more slowly or over exaggerate.
- Make eye contact and speak directly to the person with a disability. Where possible, sit down to speak with a person using a wheelchair so that you are at the same eye level.
- Don't hang onto a person's wheelchair or tray – the chair is part of their personal space.
- If a person also has a speech impairment:
- don't assume they can't understand your speech
- be patient, don't try to finish their sentences
- ask questions that only require short answers
- ask them to repeat themselves if you don't understand - don't pretend to understand.
Tips for communicating with people with a mental illness
Often you may not even know a person has a mental illness and won't need to communicate any differently. If a person is showing signs of agitation, anxiety, panic, fear, disorientation or aggressiveness:
- remain calm and keep your voice tone unhurried
- make time and allow the person to talk
- show empathy without necessarily agreeing with what is being said e.g. "I understand that you are feeling frightened by your experiences…"
- accept that hallucinations and delusions are real for the person with disability – but do not pretend they are real to you
- use clearer, short sentences
- help the person access support and tell them what you are doing.
Tips for communicating with people with chronic medical conditions
Often you may not know a person has a medical condition and won't need to communicate any differently. If a person is showing signs of distress or being unwell:
- remain calm and keep your voice tone unhurried.
- ask the person if you can do anything to help.
- help the person access support and tell them what you are doing.
Tips for communicating with people with an intellectual disability
- Use your natural volume and tone and speak clearly using plain English.
- Check understanding by asking the person to repeat what you have said in their own words.
- Rephrase information if it is not understood, or present it differently
- Ask short questions to gather information.
- Make instructions clear and brief and try not to get frustrated if you have to repeat yourself.
Tips for communicating with people with vision impairment
- Introduce yourself by name, even if you already know the person.
- Use your natural voice – don't shout or over-exaggerate.
- Tell the person when you are leaving the room.
- Be specific with any verbal directions or instructions e.g. 'slightly to your right' not 'over there'.
- Don't presume that the person can't see anything – if appropriate it's ok to ask them what they can see.
- Don't be embarrassed if you use phrases like 'see you later' or 'did you see…'.
- Don't pat a guide dog in it's harness as you may distract it from working.
Tips for communicating with people with hearing impairment
- Place yourself where they can see you to gain attention, or lightly touch their shoulder.
- Position yourself to ensure maximum light on your face.
- Always face the person – do not turn away or cover your mouth.
- Don't provide unnecessary detail – keep sentences short.
- If necessary use a pen and paper to communicate.
- Be flexible – if a person doesn't understand something you say, reword it instead of repeating it.
- Don't be embarrassed if you use phrases like 'did you hear about…'.
disAbility Aware – Communicating effectively with people with a disability. Produced by TAFE NSW Illawarra Institute, funded by Department of Education, Science and Training under the Regional Disability Liaison Officer/Disability Coordination Officer Initiative.
Disability Services Queensland. Communicating with people with disabilities.
Maroondah City Council (2006). Communicating with people with disabilities.
Office of Disability Employment Policy, United States Department of Labor (2002). Communicating with and about people with disabilities in the workplace. Available: http://www.dol.gov/odep/pubs/fact/effectiveinteraction.htm
Universities Disabilities Cooperative Project (1998). Interactions: A guide to assisting people with disabilities. Available: http://www.studentservices.utas.edu.au/adcet/nswcoop/interact/index.htm