Disability Communications: Talking With Disabled People

Too often a lack of knowledge about disability, or understanding of how people manage disability day-to-day, prevents people from interacting with each other. People with a disability have the same interests, aspirations, skills and faults as anyone else. In fact, when you have a conversation with a person with a disability, you will probably find you have plenty of stories and experiences to share. Respecting individual needs and appreciating personal experiences will help us all see beyond the disability and help create a stronger, more supportive and welcoming community.

People with intellectual and developmental disabilities have various communication difficulties. Also, the individuals with speech, hearing, and vision problems are more likely to have a communication barrier. In such a situation, the person will face a challenge in giving you an accurate picture of their feelings, emotions and symptoms because of the limitations in effectively narrating the internal cues. It thus becomes mandatory for the caregivers and the attending visitors to show warmth and positive regard, by using positive comments and positive reinforcement techniques and to focus on the person’s abilities rather than on the disabilities.

Communicate Better With Disabled People

Following are some tips that you should keep in mind when communicating with disabled people.

  • While communicating with the disabled people it must be kept in mind to be prepared to repeat what you say orally or in writing. Consider moving to a quiet and secluded private location if you are in a public area with many distractions. Make sure you are patient, flexible and supportive. However, never over-assist or be extra patronising.
  • Treat people with a disability with the same respect and consideration you have for everyone else. Speak in an age appropriate tone.
  • Don’t assume what a person can or can’t do.
  • Speak to people with a disability directly, not through their carer, assistant or interpreter.
  • Ask before you help – don’t just jump in.
  • Can’t understand what’s being said? Don’t pretend – ask again.
  • Take some time – people with some kinds of disability may take a little longer to understand and respond.
  • Some disabilities are invisible. Get to know people.
  • Guide dogs are working dogs. Never pat or speak to a guide dog while it’s wearing a harness.

Other Useful Communication Tips

  • When talking with a person with a disability, speak directly to that person rather than through a companion or sign language interpreter who may be present.
  • While talking to a person using a wheelchair, try to sit on something which is at par with their eye level and then initiate the conversation.
  • 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.)
  • When meeting a person with a visual impairment, always identify yourself and others who may be with you. When conversing in a group, remember to identify the person to whom you are speaking. People with the visual impairment cannot identify the visual cues as other normal people, it is thus relevant to verbalize any thoughts or emotions while you come communicate with them.
  • Never pat, feed, or otherwise distract an accompanied guide dog with the visually impaired person. Always remember a dog in a harness is working.
  • Also, it is crucial to say something that indicates your presence when you enter the room of a visually impaired person. Similarly, bid off the person while leaving the room. The person with the vision impairment must not be embarrassed by speaking to the empty space.
  • While offering the seat gently place the individual’s hand on the back or the arm of the chair so that he or she can locate the seat. Also, be descriptive when giving the directions. Verbally describe all the information that is visually obvious to other individuals who can normally see.
  • 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. (Never patronize people who use wheelchairs by patting them on the head or shoulders.)
  • Leaning or hanging on a person’s wheelchair is similar to leaning or hanging on a person and is generally considered annoying. The chair is part of the person’s body space. Never touch the wheelchair or move the crutches or walking stick of the disabled person without their permission.
  • Listen attentively when you’re talking with a person who has difficulty speaking. Be patient and wait for the person to finish rather than correcting or speaking for the person. If necessary, ask short questions that require short answers, a nod or a shake of the head. Never pretend to understand if you are having difficulty doing so. Instead, repeat what you have understood and allow the person to respond. The response will clue in and guide your understanding.
  • When speaking with a person in a wheelchair or a person who uses crutches, place yourself at eye level in front of the person to facilitate the conversation.
  • To get the attention of a person who is hearing-impaired, tap the person on the shoulder or wave your hand. Look directly at the person and speak clearly, slowly, and expressively to establish if the person can read your lips. Not all people with a hearing impairment can lip-read. For those who do not lip-read, be sensitive to their needs by placing yourself facing the light source and keeping hands, cigarettes, and food away from your mouth when speaking.
  • Use simple diagrams and gestures, acts and demonstrations, use pictures while communicating with a hearing disability.
  • Also while interacting with the people with an intellectual disability ensure that you have the person’s attention, also, maintain an appropriate eye contact to make sure they are listening to you. Keep the questions simple and answers easy to understand. It is important for you to maintain an appropriate body language, as people with an intellectual disability often rely on the visual cues. Try to be specific and direct while communicating.
  • While communicating with the epileptic people it must be remembered that they are healthy most of the time. Try to repeat the last thing communicated if they abruptly stop doing what they have been doing or saying for a few seconds. Try not to fuss about it either, as it will cause further embarrassment. Always remember that the patient on an anti-epileptic medication has mood swings as the common side effect of the drug, and hence the behavioral off period, often shown by them must not be taken personally.
  • Relax. Don’t be embarrassed if you happen to use accepted, common expressions such as “See you later,” or “Did you hear about this,” that seem to relate to the person’s disability.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), including the section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, mandates the doctors and other health Care providers to make sure that effective communication is established with the patients with disabilities. It also obligates them to provide for the auxiliary services to assist with communication. Various examples of auxiliary aids and services include sign language interpreters, simplified language documents, large print documents, braille materials, Computer-Assisted Real-Time Text (CART).

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