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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