Communicating with a Person with a Disability

Communication is a tough thing to get right. There’s all these nuances related to body language, not to mention the many cultural differences that exist (some cultures prefer eye contact, others do not, various fingers can be either positive signs or offensive gestures, etc.)

But what about communicating with a person who has a disability?

With more than 35 million individuals over the age of 18 in the U.S. who have some sort of disability, chances are good that you will encounter someone who falls in this category at some point in your career. It could be a customer, a subordinate, a colleague, a supervisor, a person you meet at a networking event or a hiring manager. And while it seems like it would be no big deal on the surface, many people freeze up when suddenly faced with this situation.

On the one hand, it’s a natural tendency to take note of the aspects of another person that makes him/her different. Things like height or hair color that may contrast our own are immediately registered. But when the difference is a disability, there can be an uncomfortableness that can cause the person without a disability to act, well, rude. There may be avoidance or staring that is completely disrespectful to the other person, not to mention the asking of inappropriate questions. Take this excerpt that originally appeared in a 2006 article from DiversityInc:

“How do you go to the bathroom?”

It’s an incredibly rude question, one most people wouldn’t even think to ask another adult, especially in the workplace. But it’s a question Cassie Mitchell repeatedly has been asked by coworkers. What would possess someone to ask such a question? Mitchell uses a wheelchair.

Mitchell, a 25-year-old biomedical engineer who’s been paraplegic since 2000, has become accustomed to such boorish behavior from both colleagues and complete strangers.

Instead of engaging her as a very intelligent person, the focus some folks have is on the fact that she uses a wheelchair. While that may seem like it’s an extreme example that wouldn’t happen often, I would bet that Ms. Mitchell could share many more stories.

Here are eight guidelines for communicating with a person with a disability that are based on the 10 Commandments of Communicating with People with Disabilities:

1. Relax! Don’t get flustered if you say something that seems inappropriate, like “I hear you” or “I see what you mean.” You’re OK — really!

2. Speak directly to the person. Even if s/he uses a sign language interpreter, it is rude to talk to the interpreter by saying things like “Tell her I’m Sue.” Look at the person and say, “My name is Sue.”

3. It’s fine to shake hands, no matter whether or not a person has an artificial limb. If the person does not have a right hand to shake, it’s acceptable to shake with the left hand.

4. Identify yourself and other people with you when meeting someone with a visual impairment. If talking in a group, say who you are addressing.

5. “Treat adults as adults.” ‘Nuff said.

6. If a person uses a wheelchair, don’t lean on it. That is part of his/her personal space and should be respected.

7. Be patient with a person whose speech is affected. Don’t ever pretend to understand what was said when you don’t. Instead, ask clarifying questions respectfully.

8. When speaking to someone who is deaf or hard of hearing, don’t shout or overpronounce your words. Doing so distorts your mouth, making it harder to understand you. Also, don’t assume that the individual can lipread. Just keep yourself facing the person with your hands down, have nothing in your mouth, and talk at a normal speed.

Treating people with disabilities respectfully is just a commonsense courtesy we should want everyone to extend. After all, any one of us could find ourselves with a disability someday.

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