Communicating Effectively With People With Disability
Published: 05 October 2021
Content warning: Please be aware that this Article contains examples of ableist and offensive language.
Being able to communicate freely is a fundamental human right that allows people to work, form relationships and seek support (QLD Gov 2018; Steel 2018).
Every person, including those living with disability, has the right to express their feelings, needs and wants, and communicate with other people - irrespective of speech ability or cognition (QLD Gov 2018; Steel 2018).
Despite this, people living with disability may face barriers to communication that make it difficult for them to take part in everyday life and be included in society (Steel 2018).
As well as providing appropriate support to help people with disability communicate (if required), the attitudes and approaches of those communicating with them - such as family members, friends, carers and healthcare professionals - are also important in ensuring that people with disability are able to exercise their fundamental rights.
Effective and empathetic communication is related to both how you talk to someone and the words you use to do so.
Using Appropriate Terminology and Inclusive Language
Language is a powerful tool. The choices that people make about language affect not only the way in which people with disability feel but also the way in which they are perceived by society (PWDA 2019).
Using disrespectful, disempowering and discriminatory language causes hurt, excludes people, poses a barrier to participation in society and reinforces stereotypes (PWDA 2019).
In our day-to-day lives - and especially when talking to, referring to or working with people with disability - we need to be aware of the words we choose and the meanings behind them (PWDA 2019).
Identity-First and Person-First Language
There are two ways in which people with disability can be referred to:
Identity-first language puts the identifier before the person (e.g. ‘autistic person’)
Person-first language puts the person before the identifier (e.g. ‘person with cerebral palsy’).
Each person with disability has their own preference about the language used to describe themself, and it’s important to listen to and affirm their choices (PWDA 2019).
Person-first language is widely used by governments and organisations in Australia due to the idea that a person’s disability should not be focused on unnecessarily. However, some people prefer identity-first language as it indicates that while their disability is not something they can control, they are embracing this part of their identity (PWDA 2019). Certain Autistic and Deaf communities prefer identity-first language, for example (PWDA 2019).
The best way to find out how someone would like to be described is to ask them (CDC 2020).
Stereotyping denies the individuality of people with disability and can lead to discrimination. The following are harmful and untrue stereotypes about people with disability:
Having disability is a tragedy
People with disability should be pitied
People with disability are superhuman or extraordinary for living their lives
Family, partners and friends of those with disability are heroic, brave or inspiring
All people with disability are asexual.
(QLD Gov 2012)
The term inspiration objectification (also known as ‘inspiration porn’), which was created by late Australian disability activist Stella Young, describes the way in which people with disability are often portrayed as ‘inspirational’ simply for existing. These portrayals serve to inspire people without disability to be grateful for their own lives and think, ‘Well, however bad my life is, it could be worse - I could be that person’ (PWDA 2019; Young 2014).
This type of thinking is hurtful to people with disability and objectifies their existence for the benefit of non-disabled people. If a person with disability achieves something newsworthy, this of course deserves celebration - but participating in a mundane or everyday activity is not extraordinary just because that person has disability (PWDA 2019; Young 2014).
Implying that a person with disability is brave, special, or inspirational for simply living their life is patronising and offensive (AFDO 2020).
Terms to Use and Avoid
The following table from People With Disability Australia’s What Do I Say? A Guide to Language About Disability resource provides general guidance on terms to avoid and recommended alternatives to use when talking to and about people with disability. (Note that this is not a comprehensive list.)
‘Person/people with disability’
‘Lives with disability’
‘Has a chronic health condition’
‘Lives with a chronic health condition’
‘Person with a disability’
‘People with disabilities’
‘With different abilities’
‘Person who uses a wheelchair’
‘Confined to a wheelchair’
‘Person with paraplegia/quadriplegia’
‘Person with cognitive disability’
‘Person with intellectual disability’
‘Person with learning disability’
‘Blind’ (if the person identifies that way)
‘Deaf’ (if the person identifies that way)
‘Hard of hearing’
‘Person with a hearing/vision/visual impairment’
‘Blind as a bat’
‘Person without a disability’
‘Of sound body’
‘Of sound mind’
(Adapted from PWDA 2019)
Communicating With People With Disability
Some people find it daunting to communicate with a person who has disability. Common concerns include:
Not knowing what terminology to use
Not wanting to offend or embarrass the person
Not wanting to say or do the wrong thing
Being unfamiliar with appropriate communication strategies.
(NDCO 2016; AND 2017)
While these concerns may come from a place of good intention, they are unnecessary and might only end up creating barriers instead of reducing them. Using correct and respectful terminology is important, but don’t be so afraid to make a mistake that you avoid saying anything at all. Instead, remember to treat all people with the respect they deserve, be willing to listen and learn, and apologise if you make a mistake (AND 2014, 2017).
General Communication Tips
Talk to people with disability like you would any other person. Use an age-appropriate tone and treat adults like adults
Speak directly to the person with disability instead of their carer, interpreter or others present
Be polite and patient
Avoid raising your voice
Avoid making assumptions about the person’s disability
Avoid assuming that all people with disability are experts on disability-related issues
Avoid focusing on the person’s disability unnecessarily, but don’t be afraid to refer to it either
Empathise if appropriate but don’t sympathise
Don’t pretend to understand what the person is saying if you don’t; if you’re having difficulty understanding, let them know
Try rewording instead of repeating if the person is having difficulty understanding you
Ask the person if they would like help before offering assistance. Respect the person’s wishes if they reject your offer - your help may not be wanted or needed
Never touch or distract an assistance dog that is working.
(AFDO 2018; QLD Gov 2018; AND 2017; Maroondah City Council 2011; NDCO 2016; IDPWD 2018)
Communicating With a Person With Physical Disability
Never touch, push or move a person’s mobility aid without permission
If the person uses a wheelchair, sit down so that you can communicate at eye level.
Communicating With a Person With a Vision Impairment
When you meet someone with a vision impairment, address them by name and introduce yourself by name, even if you know each other
Verbalise your thoughts and feelings
Let the person know if you are leaving or entering the room
Be specific when giving directions or instructions (e.g. ‘slightly to your right’ instead of ‘over there’)
It’s fine to use phrases like ‘see you soon’
If the person requests assistance to move somewhere, offer your elbow or shoulder to guide them.
(AFDO 2018; AND 2017; NDCO 2016)
Communicating With a Person With a Hearing Impairment
Before speaking, get the person’s attention by gently tapping their shoulder or waving
Face the person and maintain eye contact
Keep your mouth visible speaking and avoid exaggerating your mouth movements
Avoid speaking too quickly or slowly
Use short sentences
Speak at a normal volume
Use a pen and paper to communicate if necessary
It’s fine to use phrases like ‘did you hear about...’.
(AFDO 2018; NDCO 2016)
Communicating With a Person With Intellectual Disability
Before speaking, get the person’s attention by using their name or making eye contact
Keep your questions and answers simple and easy to understand
Consider your body language, as the person may rely on visual cues
Communicate using visual aids (e.g. diagrams or pictures) if required
Be specific and direct, avoiding abstracts, acronyms, metaphors or puns
Be prepared to repeat or rephrase information if necessary.
(AFDO 2018; NDCO 2016)
Communicating With a Person With Speech Disability
Understand that speech is just one way to communicate - non-verbal cues such as gestures, facial expressions and body language can also be used
Be patient and avoid finishing the person’s sentences for them
Give the person your undivided attention
Reduce background noise and distractions
Use facial expressions and gestures to convey information
Give the person enough time to respond to you and be comfortable with silence
Show active listening by making sounds of acknowledgement such as ‘yes’ and ‘mhm’
If the person uses a communication device (e.g. manual or electronic communication board), ask them the best way to use it.