Updated: Nov 6, 2019
Interacting with a person with disabilities can seem difficult when you don’t share the same hardships. It can seem stressful, uncomfortable, and even scary if you’re afraid you’ll say or do the wrong thing.
The first thing you should do is take a deep breath. Interacting with a person who has a disability doesn’t have to be hard! 1 in 5 people have a disability, so it’s likely that you’ve talked with a disabled person today and didn’t even know it. People with disabilities aren’t any different to communicate with - and just want to be treated the same as everyone else.
So, we have prepared a list of five things you should (and shouldn’t) do when communicating and interacting with a person with disabilities. Just remember some of these tips and you’ll be fine!
A note: We use the pronouns “he/she” or “him” instead of “them” in this blog. We want people with disabilities to be regarded as individuals, not as a group under a label.
Here are the top five tips we suggest for communicating with someone with disabilities:
Use proper language. You should know the right language to use when referring to and communicating with someone who has a disability. You can view this list to see a few examples of modern acceptable and unacceptable terms. Avoid terms that are unacceptable, or you risk really offending the person you’re talking to and others around you.
Greet the person and introduce yourself. No matter what disability the person has, offer a greeting. Wave to them. Say hi. Offer a handshake. Don’t make it awkward - he/she want to say hi just as much as you do, so don’t be afraid to greet them! While you’re at it, introduce yourself to him, and introduce anyone who might also be accompanying you. Introductions are the first step to inclusion, so don’t be afraid to let him mingle with your group.
Speak clearly and directly when conversing. Always make sure that you are speaking directly to the person. This not only helps him decode and respond to the conversation, but speaking directly to him will show respect as well. Be patient and attentive to his needs, and repeat yourself if requested. Don’t use slang that he may not understand. Don’t look away either, and especially do not yell at him from across the hall or around a corner.
Listen intently. Just like conversing with anyone else, you want to make sure that when you’re communicating with a person with a disability, he knows you’re listening to him. Maintain eye contact, nod along when appropriate, and make sure to respond. Don’t be playing on your phone or staring into space. Give him your full, undivided attention. This will show that you’re interested in what he has to say.
Relax! Really, this doesn’t need to be awkward or scary. Relax when you’re around someone with a disability. Talk to him normally. Don’t get nervous if you slip up and say “see you around” to someone who’s blind (as an example) - it’s an error in that situation, but it’s also normal language. Don’t make it awkward! Communicating with those with disabilities is just like communicating with anyone else, and it can’t be stressed enough!
To follow, here are some tips we recommend following when interacting with someone who has a disability:
Be aware of your surroundings. When you have a person with a disability around you, you should be prepared to make accommodations as they need or request. Turn down the music if he’s overwhelmed, or can’t understand you over the noise. Close open cabinets and clear doorways and walkways for those who can’t move around freely. Be courteous - but not pushy!
Treat the person like any other guest. Show him where things are in the house: the bathroom, the kitchen, etc. Show him any tricks to opening doors or windows that he might need to know. What you should NOT do is assume he needs help. Let your guest move around leisurely. Do not be his shadow! If he asks for help, then help him. Otherwise, let him move freely.
Do NOT lean on a person’s devices. It’s considered rude and an invasion of privacy to lean on a disabled person’s wheelchair or scooter. It’s also rude (and dangerous!) to take away someone’s walker or crutches! If an emergency were to happen and he/she didn’t have their devices needed to escape, it could be catastrophic. A wheelchair, scooter, crutches, or any other device should be considered an extension of the person’s body. Don’t remove them, ever.
Don’t grab or touch the person without permission. Some people with disabilities rely on their arms for balance. Grabbing him could result in him falling over, and that could be dangerous. Or, it could startle someone who’s not expecting it.
Treat a person with a disability the same way you would treat anyone else. It really can’t be stressed enough. Treat he/she the way you would treat anyone else! If accommodations must be made, let him, or his doctor, determine what they need to be. Don’t make any assumptions, and don’t be afraid to interact or communicate. In the end, everyone just wants to be accepted and treated fairly.
Author: Raeann Calcutta
Raeann Calcutta is a social media intern and blogger for the ONEIL Center for Research Communication. She has her associate's degree in Communications from Sinclair Community College and currently studies Communication and Digital Media studies at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.