The ability to communicate is a key part of life, and it’s very important that people with disabilities are treated with as much respect and dignity as anyone without. There is no need to feel awkward about communicating with people with disabilities – they have just as many important things to say as anyone else!
Every disability is different, and the communication needs of a person with a disability are not universal either. However, there are a few basic guidelines to communicating with people with disabilities.
• Be patient – this is imperative. The person you are talking to may speak slowly, need you to repeat what you’ve said or may not be able to speak clearly. Allow them to finish their sentence without interruption, even if you think you know what they’re going to say.
• Speak clearly – try not to mumble, but don’t raise your voice or shout unless specifically asked to do so.
• Address the person – if you’re communicating with a person with disabilities who has an interpreter or caregiver, always address your words to the individual. If you’re speaking with someone via an interpreter, try to pause every so often to ensure they can keep up and continue to translate effectively.
• Ask if you’re unsure – always ask rather than assuming the communication needs of a person with a disability (of course, this means to ask questions relevant to the conversation, not to be intrusive). Additionally, don’t pretend to understand something they’ve said if you don’t – it’s better just to ask them to repeat it.
• Don’t interact with a service animal - service animals are trained to perform one or multiple tasks for their handlers which can range from helpful to life-critical. Distracting these animals can have dangerous or even fatal consequences. So, whether it’s a seeing-eye dog, seizure-alert animal or even a gluten-detecting animal, it’s working; don’t pet it or interact with it in any way.
Of course, the communication needs of a person with a disability will differ for every individual, and everyone will also have different preferences. However, these are a few tips to keep in mind for broad needs.
These tips are largely aimed at communicating with people with total or near-total vision loss.
• Physical cues – when trying to get the attention of a person with visual challenges, you should lightly tap them on the arm or hand – it’s polite to let them know you’re there and are about to speak.
• Introduce yourself and anyone with you as well.
• Offer assistance – if you’re walking together, you might like to offer them your arm but don’t be offended if they say no. They might prefer to walk by themselves or have a white cane or a seeing-eye dog. If they do take your arm, announce your intentions or actions as you do them: ‘We need to step down from the sidewalk’, ‘we need to turn left here’, ‘I’m going to stop because we’re at the crosswalk’.
• Be specific - when a blind person asks you for directions, be as clear and specific as possible, using rough measurements where possible.
Talking to someone with a hearing-related disability doesn’t have to be difficult – it’s just about finding the easiest way for the situation!
• Ask them how they prefer to communicate; they might speak American Sign Language (ASL), but if they, or you, don’t, they might prefer to lipread or have a written conversation instead. Consider learning some common signs such as ‘hello’, ‘thank you’, ‘sorry’ and ‘I don’t understand'.
• Keep your face clear. Don’t touch your mouth with your hands or turn away while talking; if they lipread, this will make it much more difficult to communicate with people with auditory disabilities.
Similarly, don’t overexaggerate your pronunciation – this can be confusing and actually make your meaning less clear.
• Be patient - be prepared to repeat yourself if necessary or clarify anything you’ve said.
Autism can present differently in any individual, and there are many different types of autism, but these are a few basic guidelines.
• Don’t try to force eye contact – it might make them uncomfortable. This doesn’t mean they’re ignoring you.
• Stimming - don’t comment on stims or ask that they stop stimming in your presence. As long as the stim isn’t harmful to themselves or others, it’s an important part of self-regulation and can be a sign that they’re enjoying being with you!
• Social differences - be aware that autistic people typically prefer clear, honest communication, which can come off as very blunt. For example, an autistic person might comment on something where a neurotypical person would offer a polite lie, such as if you ask someone whether a top you like suits you or not.
An autistic person may become accustomed to masking – mimicking the social behavior they see around them – in order to avoid miscommunication. When communicating with people with disabilities, it’s likely you may not even notice the difference between an autistic individual who is masking and a neurotypical person. But masking comes with a cost and can lead to ‘autistic burnout’, a form of overload that can cause people to shut down or struggle to cope.
Creating a safe space for autistic people to be able to be themselves can reduce the risk of autistic burnout; sensory rooms for autism are ideal for this as they provide a space for an autistic person to stim, engage with sensory products and relax.
Dementia can be difficult for caregivers, particularly those who are also loved ones of the ill person. A dementia patient may not recognize their friends or family members, or even themselves, and the confusion can cause people to act differently. A sensory room for dementia is a great way to reduce confusion and help keep a dementia patient calm. Here are some of the communication needs of a person with a disability like dementia.
• Identify yourself - remember that you may need to identify yourself, even if the person knows you very well. They might not recognize you, or believe that you’re someone else.
• Avoid asking open-ended questions; yes or no questions are much better.
• Try to avoid arguing with the other person, especially if they’re confused. In some cases of later-stage dementia, caregivers often say they allow the individual to believe they’re someone else rather than confusing them by saying they’re wrong.
This is a bit different – a person might use a wheelchair for a number of reasons, and many wheelchair users have no communication difficulties whatsoever. However, many wheelchair users often report that able-bodied individuals do not communicate well with them and come across quite patronizing or ignore them completely. As such, here are some etiquette rules to bear in mind when talking to a wheelchair user.
• Offer assistance if they look like they might need it, but if they say no accept that they know themselves best. A key function of a wheelchair is that it allows those with mobility difficulties to be more independent.
• Speak directly to them. If a wheelchair user is with someone else – whether that is a friend, caregiver, family member or acquaintance – you should still always address them directly. Never speak above their head about them; respect them as an individual with autonomy.
• Don’t touch the wheelchair. This is imperative. Many wheelchair users report that strangers will often grab the handles of their wheelchair and start moving them without permission – this is not only dangerous, but the wheelchair is an extension of their body and independence, so it’s no different to being assaulted.
One of the most important things to remember when communicating with people with disabilities is simply to treat them as you would anyone else – they are people with hopes, dreams, fears and opinions just like anyone else and they deserve to have them heard!
We offer a range of products designed to help support someone with a learning disability or communication difficulty. If you would like to learn more, please get in touch with our friendly team today to discuss our sensory solutions or our free sensory room design service.