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.

watching ipad with man with disability
Every person, including those living with disability, has the right to express their feelings, needs and wants/

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’).

(PWDA 2019)

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).

Avoiding Stereotypes

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)

Inspiration Objectification

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.)

Use Avoid
  • ‘Person/people with disability’
  • ‘Has disability’
  • ‘Lives with disability’
  • ‘Has a chronic health condition’
  • ‘Lives with a chronic health condition’
  • ‘Afflicted/crippled by…’
  • ‘Victim of…’
  • ‘Suffers from…’
  • ‘Differently abled’
  • ‘Handicap(ped)’
  • ‘Handicapable’
  • ‘Person with a disability’
  • ‘People with disabilities’
  • ‘Specially abled’
  • ‘Special needs’
  • ‘The disabled’
  • ‘With different abilities’
  • ‘Wheelchair user’
  • ‘Person who uses a wheelchair’
  • ‘Confined to a wheelchair’
  • ‘Wheelchair-bound’
  • ‘Person with paraplegia/quadriplegia’
  • ‘Paraplegic/quadriplegic’
  • ‘Person with cognitive disability’
  • ‘Person with intellectual disability’
  • ‘Intellectually challenged’
  • ‘Mentally disabled’
  • ‘Person with learning disability’
  • ‘Slow’
  • ‘Slow learner’
  • ‘Special needs’
  • ‘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’
  • ‘Mute’
  • ‘Person without a disability’
  • ‘Non-disabled person’
  • ‘Able-bodied/abled’
  • ‘Healthy’
  • ‘Normal’
  • ‘Of sound body’
  • ‘Sighted’
  • ‘Well’
  • ‘Neurotypical’
  • ‘Normal’
  • ‘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; 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.

    (AFDO 2018)

    Communicating With a Person With a Vision Impairment

    communicating with a client 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.

    (Steel 2018; Smeltzer, Mariani & Meakim 2017)

    Additional Resources


    Test Your Knowledge

    Question 1 of 3

    True or false: Person-first language should always be used when describing disability.


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