Disability Etiquette, part 9 – engaging with people with unhidden impairments

Bar man asking colleague "do we take disabled money?" as a wheelchair uses tries to pay for a drink
Thanks to “Crippen” – http://www.crippencartoons.co.uk


In the final parts of this series on Disability Etiquette we are looking at working with people who have specific impairments or conditions. Of course, each person is an individual and we should never make sweeping statements. These are general guidelines, but the most important thing is to communicate with the individual to find out what they find helpful – or irritating!


 So far we have covered:

  1. The basics
  2. Terminology
  3. Physical access
  4. Attitudinal barriers
  5. Communication tips
  6. Things not to say to disabled people
  7. Ways to be helpful to disabled people
  8. Engaging with people with sight or hearing impairments

Today we are going to introduce a range of types of disability which are fairly obvious and explore some issues for each. As ever, your comments are always helpful.

People with speech difficulties

  • Give the person your full attention, without interrupting or finishing sentences
  • If you don’t understand, don’t pretend you have – ask them again. If you aren’t sure, seek clarification that you have understood by repeatung what you think they said
  • If all attempts fail, find another way round it, like writing things down
  • Try to work in a quiet environment

People with short stature

  • The most irritating thing is to be treated as cute or child-like – don’t do it!
  • Be aware of having things within easy reach of the person
  • Communication can be easier when people are at the same level. You can sit in a chair, kneel down or stand further back so your eye-line is more even. Whatever seems appropriate and that they are happy with.
  • Without their absolute express permission, do not ever lift them up. Unless they have asked you to, this can be an extreme violation (imagine someone doing it to you!)

People with Cerebral Palsy

  • Some people with cerebral palsy have involuntary muscular movements and some have slurred speech, some may dribble. This can give the impression to the unwary of a learning disability. It isn’t. Use the advice above about speech impairments, and talk to the person exactly as you would to anyone else
  • Sometimes people with cerebral palsy may appear to be drunk – make sure this isn’t the case before making assumptions!
  • Not all people with cerebral palsy use wheelchairs, or have any effect on their arms or speech. However, do not diminish the effects of the condition – everyday things that most people take in their stride can be very tiring to people with cerebral palsy

People with Tourette’s

  • People with Tourette’s may make involuntary movements or tics, or vocalisations. A small amount may swear or use racist language. They will mostly benefit from the understanding and acceptance of colleagues and others
  • If a person with Tourette’s interrupts a conversation with tics or vocalisations, simply wait for them to finish and then carry on from where you left off
  • The urges tend to build up, so in long meetings it may be appropriate to give the person a break so they can release the build-up in a private place
  • They have no control over the movements or the words they use, so do not take offence or laugh 

People who look different

  • People who have a facial disfigurement, a visible skin condition, a cleft lip or palate, or a tremor – anything that makes them look different – can often feel isolated and ignored, or worse, stared at. Be sure you don’t contribute to that stigma, and involve them in conversation as you would anyone else
  • If someone who looks different is being left out of group activities, make an effort to include them. They will make it clear if they would rather be left alone, but at least offer the opportunity to be part of the group

People with mobility impairments

  • This has mostly been covered elswhere, but remember to respect any aids someone is using – whether a wheelchair, scooter, crutches, canes or sticks
  • Make sure walkways are clear of clutter and wide enough, and provide ramps or flat access or lifts where appropriate
  • Offer help if asked, but don’t assume help will be needed
  • Talk to the person themselves, not the carer if one is used
  • Give people the time and space they need to get to where they are going
  • Don’t assume that because someone uses a wheelchair they are also deaf and stupid

In the next blog we will be looking at people whose disasbilities are hidden – including people with learning disabilities, mental health conditions and other conditions such as epilepsy or AIDS/HIV.

Please add any comments below you think will be helpful.


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4 thoughts on “Disability Etiquette, part 9 – engaging with people with unhidden impairments

  1. As you know the stroke left me with “funny” sounding speech. I really like what you’ve said above and I hope lots of people read this. I’ve found the positive in my speech impairment – people have to look at you and really listen carefully to what you say.

    In the section about mobility impairments I love your last bullet because I find that people who don’t know me and before I say anything look at my walker and … “assume that because someone uses a wheelchair they are also deaf and stupid ..” I set them right as soon as I start to speak 🙂

    Thanks for writing this series 🙂


  2. Hi Jane

    I don’t want this to come across wrongly so I’ll say it as carefully as I can:

    When I communicate with children, not having had any of my own, I’ve always followed the rule of thumb: Speak to them exactly the same way as I would to an adult of reasonable intelligence. If they have a problem with following anything, I reckon they’ll let me know. And they do.

    Now equally, fortunately, I don’t have personal experience of the impairments you cover here so, when I ‘m communicating with someone who displays one or more of them, I do my damnedest to treat them, too, as an adult of reasonable intelligence.

    If someone has a better idea thet’s proven to work, I’d love to know it and try it 🙂


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