Disability Etiquette, part 5 – Ten Top Communication Tips

Skeleton in waiting room, with spider's webs around - medical person saying to colleague "It looks as though Mr. Brown has missed his appointment again". A sign saying "please wait until your name is called" is on the wall.
Thanks to “Crippen” – http://www.crippencartoons.co.uk.

In the first four parts of this series – the basics, terminology, physical access and attitudinal barriers – one of the most important factors we have emphasised is in communicating with the disabled person. Asking questions rather than making assumptions. Finding out their view rather than making decisions on their behalf. However, the simple act of communicating can be frought with problems!

Again, each disabled person is unique and so it is difficult to make statements which suit everyone, but here is a set of guidelines which you may find useful to remember when communicating with someone for whom communication is a challenge (either for them or for you in understanding them):

1. If someone speaks slowly or stutters or stammers, please give them time to finish their sentence. Avoid the temptation to finish it for them, or assume you know what they are trying to say.

2. If someone’s speech is difficult for you to understand, don’t pretend you have understood and nod vaguely – they will know you haven’t understood, and would usually rather you said so to give them another opportunity to tell you, rather than being too embarrassed to ask. They will be used to having to make two or more attempts to be understood.

3. If you are talking to someone with a hearing impairment, speak normally and clearly whilst ensuring they can see your face – don’t have your back to a bright light or sunlight, don’t cover your face with your hand or look away, and don’t shout – this distorts your facial expression making your words more difficult to understand, and it makes you look angry!

4. If you are using a signer to interpret your words, still look at the person you are communicating with rather than the signer.

5. If you are speaking to someone with a learning disability, avoid using technical language or jargon and keep your language straightforward, but use the same tone of voice that you would with any other adult. Don’t adopt a “child-friendly” tone – that can be very patronising (and easier to do than you might think).

6. An obvious one (but surprisingly common), if you are talking to someone who is being pushed by someone else in a wheelchair, direct your comments to the person, not the person pushing the wheelchair. And, still frighteningly common, don’t “talk to” the asistance or guide dog without talking to the person first!

7. If you are communicating with someone who is autistic, be aware of the language you use. Some people on the autistic spectrum take things very literally – if you say it’s raining cats and dogs they may wonder where the small animals are! Sarcasm tends not to work well either.

8. If you appoach someone who is blind, introduce yourself by name even if they know you – they won’t be able to see it is you. If it is a business communication they will sometimes hold their hand out for you to shake – look out for this so you don’t miss the cue.

9. When communicating with someone with Tourette’s syndrome, allow their verbal tics to happen and then calmly continue the conversation.

10. If the person you are talking to doesn’t seem to understand you,  rephrase rather than repeat what you said, or offer to write it down. Check they have understood rather than assuming, if it is important.

I hope these tips were useful. I’d like to develop another ten to add to them – do you have any good tips to share?

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13 thoughts on “Disability Etiquette, part 5 – Ten Top Communication Tips

  1. Again, a great blog with some much needed information.

    No 4 is a challenge. I am fascinated by signing and have tried to learn basics [which I need to do for my voluntary Olympic role]. I am distracted by the signing and have on occasions forgotten to acknowledge who I am speaking to. Especially as they are not looking at me but at their signer.

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  2. 11. When asking if a person needs help listen to their answer and only do what is requested otherwise you risk taking over and disabling them more by refusing to allow them to complete aspects of the task they are capable of managing currently.

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  3. Thanks Lynn – yes, at the Evenbreak launch I was very conscious of the signer standing right next to me while I was speaking, and had to make sure I didn’t just speak to her!

    That’s a great point Jean – sometimes accepting a bit of help is read as permission to take over. Whilst the help is gratefully received it can be annoying for it to get out of hand.

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  4. This is really an expansion on your point #1, but when chatting with someone who uses a voice synthesizer activated by them hitting keys on a board, similarly don’t try to anticipate what they’re telling you – even though it may take a while for them to generate the information.

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  5. Yes, good point, Suze – thanks for that. I’d forgotten about voice synthesizers, and you are right – the same principle applies.

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  6. I agree Elaine! My intention is to put the series together, add quite a bit of content and make it into an e-book available to employers – and their employees!

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  7. To my mind, communicating with ANY person, whether overtly disabled or not, the premise of “Asking questions rather than making assumptions” is one of the fundamental keys and basics. 🙂

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  8. Couldn’t agree more re: not shouting at hearing impaired people, Jane – it drives me nuts as it actually makes it harder not easier to understand what they’re saying. Grrrr!

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  9. I struggle with the deaf thing. My best friend is deaf and we arranged t-loops etc when I got married, and the girls christened and other events. But I still talk when walking behind her… and no matter how hard she slaps me around the head I’ve not quite computed that she can’t hear me when her back is turned.

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  10. Hi Jane,

    Thank you for your great tips, I agree that this very useful information is so needed, as it would help by many people; whether individuals, groups or businesses. I would add to the list, the importance of time, as you so rightly said, avoid making assumptions and finishing sentences… On many occasions I have seen how some say ‘oh I haven’t got the time for this,’ assuming that the person who is trying to communicate with them, doesn’t understand what they are saying. When we show respect to the time spent with another person, you show them that they and what they have to say, is valued and important.

    Skills of ‘really listening’ is something I am very interested in, which I have looked at, as part of my training. Listening is often something overlooked, but think it is vital.

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  11. 8. Not a communication tip, but I’m not sure if it’s been covered elsewhere – when walking with a blind person, don’t take their arm; let them take yours (so they don’t feel you are pushing them around like a shopping trolley).

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