Disability Services

Communicating With and About People with Disabilities

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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.

Words

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.

Affirmative Phrases Negative Phrases
person with an intellectual, cognitive, or developmental disability retarded; mentally defective
person who is blind, person who is visually impaired the blind
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 CP victim
person with epilepsy, person with seizure disorder epileptic
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 dumb; mute
person with psychiatric disability crazy; nuts
person who is successful, productive has overcome his/her disability; is courageous
(when it implies the person has courage because of having a disability)

Actions

Etiquette considered appropriate when interacting with people with disabilities is based primarily on respect and courtesy. Outlined below are tips to help you in communicating with persons with disabilities.

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.

Tips for Communicating with Individuals Who are Blind or Visually Impaired

  • Speak to the individual when you approach him or her.
  • State clearly who you are; speak in a normal tone of voice.
  • When conversing in a group, remember to identify yourself and the person to whom you are speaking.
  • Never touch or distract a service dog without first asking the owner.
  • Tell the individual when you are leaving.
  • Do not attempt to lead the individual without first asking; allow the person to hold your arm and control her or his own movements.
  • Be descriptive when giving directions; verbally give the person information that is visually obvious to individuals who can see. For example, if you are approaching steps, mention how many steps.
  • If you are offering a seat, gently place the individual's hand on the back or arm of the chair so that the person can locate the seat.

Tips for Communicating with Individuals Who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing

  • Gain the person's attention before starting a conversation (i.e., tap the person gently on the shoulder or arm).
  •  Look directly at the individual, face the light, speak clearly, in a normal tone of voice, and keep your hands away from your face. Use short, simple sentences. Avoid smoking or chewing gum.
  •  If the individual uses a sign language interpreter, speak directly to the person, not the interpreter.
  • If you telephone an individual who is hard of hearing, let the phone ring longer than usual. Speak clearly and be prepared to repeat the reason for the call and who you are.
  • If you do not have a Text Telephone (TTY), dial 711 to reach the national telecommunications relay service, which facilitates the call between you and an individual who uses a TTY.

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 Speech Impairments

  • If you do not understand something the individual says, do not pretend that you do. Ask the individual to repeat what he or she said and then repeat it back.
  • Be patient. Take as much time as necessary.
  • Try to ask questions which require only short answers or a nod of the head.
  • Concentrate on what the individual is saying.
  • Do not speak for the individual or attempt to finish her or his sentences.
  •  If you are having difficulty understanding the individual, consider writing as an alternative means of communicating, but first ask the individual if this is acceptable.

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.

Remember

  • Relax. Be yourself.
  • Treat everyone 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.