Helpful Communication Hints

  • Treat people with disabilities with the same respect and consideration that you do with others.
  • Ask a person with a disability if he/she needs help before helping.
  • Talk directly to the person with a disability, not through a third party.
  • Refer to a person’s disability only if it is relevant to the conversation.
  • Avoid negative descriptions of a person’s disability. For example, “a person who uses a wheelchair” is more appropriate than “a person confined to a wheelchair.”
  • Refer to the person first and then the disability. “A man who is blind” is better than “a blind man” because it emphasizes the person first.
Facial or other Disfigurements

Although this may not necessarily constitute a disability in the strice sense of the term, societies perceptions and attitude can be disabling. Living with a disfigurement can be a challenge because of other people’s reactions. Common experiences include staring, double takes and name-calling. Far too often people focus on the physical condition such as the burn scar or birthmark instead of considering the whole person with skills, interests and abilities.

When you meet someone with a disfigurement you may be worried about what to say or do. But similarly someone with a disfigurement may be cautious about meeting a new person, wondering what his or her reaction will be.

When you do meet someone with a disfigurement relax, treat the person with respect, make eye contact and keep calm, be approachable and friendly. By doing this, you will find it easier to focus on all their qualities and not just their physical appearance.

Sometimes a facial disfigurement can affect speech. If you don’t understand what someone says to you, be honest about it and don’t just assume because someone looks different they are stupid.

  • Make eye contact – you would not like someone to speak to you staring at the ceiling!
  • Ask open questions that allow people to talk as much or as little as they want.
  • Don’t judge people on their appearance or make assumptions about them, more often than not you’ll get it wrong.
Visual Impairments

For older people who have recently started to lose their sight, it is especially important to use phrases that are meaningful for them, for instance “I can’t see as well as I used to”.

How much a person can see depends on many things, not just on the level of sight. For instance, if you are a person with partial sight, when a book is produced in large print you might be able to read it, where previously you were unable to.

When talking to someone who has sight problems, don’t worry about looking for alternative words to “look” and “see”.  Blind and partially sighted people speak the same language as everybody else.

When in a work or social situation and you can’t use eye contact to get a blind or partially sighted person’s attention, especially when there are a number of people around, it is not always easy for the person to know you are talking to them. If you can, use their name and finally touch their arm lightly to get their attention.

If you see a person with sight problems in the street you may want to help, but that person may not want or need your help, so just ask. Allow them to take your arm if they wish to be guided and let them give you directions on how they like to be assisted. Do give precise instructions to help a blind person find their way.

  • Be descriptive for people with visual impairments. Say, “The computer is about three feet to your left,” rather than, “The computer is over there.”
  • When guiding people with visual impairments, offer them your arm rather than grabbing or pushing them.
  • Don’t assume what people want – always ask!
  • Always ask permission before you interact with a person’s guide or service dog.
Learning Disabilities

A learning disability is a lifelong condition – acquired before, during or soon after birth – that affects an individual’s ability to learn. People with a learning disability find it harder to learn and understand, but with the right support they can learn and achieve a lot in life. The causes of learning disabilities are not known, but one of the most common example is Down’s Syndrome. People with more severe learning disabilities are likely to have additional physical or sensory disabilities or health problems.

The term people with a learning disability is preferable to the term ‘mentally handicapped’ which is both negative and stigmatising and very much disliked by people likely to be given that label. Like other disabilities, it is important to refer to the person first and foremost rather than their condition.

The term people with a learning difficulty is often used with regards to people with dyslexia for example, but is seen as too broad a term to describe people with a learning disability.

People with a learning disability face extra challenges in getting the information they need. They may have difficulty understanding what is being said, making clear responses or asking questions. Some people with a learning disability cannot read or write, so ask the person how they would like to receive information. Information can be made easier to understand by using plain language, tape, large text, short sentences and pictures. Some people may prefer information to be on audiotape or may like some support to help them understand information.

People with a learning disability have a range of skills and abilities, which should be respected. Be patient and encourage people to help them communicate.

  • If asked, read instructions to users with a specific learning disability.
  • Be patient and approachable.
  • Give clear instructions and explanations and always use plain language.
  • Try using pictures to aid communication or offer visual choices, like pointing to items.
  • Check back that the person has received and understood your message.
Mobility Impairments

A wheelchair user refers to a person using a wheelchair. Never use the term ‘wheelchair bound’ or ‘confined to a wheelchair’. The term physical impairment refers to anyone who has difficulty in moving or using all or part of their body. A person with a mobility impairment may not necessarily be dependent on a wheelchair, but might find walking difficult.

If you see a wheelchair user or a person with a physical impairment your first reaction may well be to try and help. But the first rule of thumb is: when in doubt ask. Don’t just take over, or assume that the person needs help. On the other hand, don’t be too shy to offer assistance – it may be welcome.

Remember different environments can cause different problems for a person with a physical impairment. For instance, a wheelchair user might find a short distance over rough ground difficult while someone using a walking aid might be able to cope but find distance a problem.

  • Try sitting or crouching to the approximate height of people in wheelchairs when you interact, maintain eye-level and speak directly to them.
  • Don’t lean on, or push the wheelchair unless asked to, or been given permission to do so.
  • Offer to open heavy doors.
Speech Impairments

There are many different conditions that can cause speech and language problems. A person with a communication impairment may find that other people have difficulty understanding them. Their speech may be indistinct, they may not be able to speak at all, they might find it difficult to say particular words or to put words together to form sentences, or they may have a stammer. Someone with a communication impairment may also have difficulties writing and reading text.

The main thing about a communication impairment is that it is usually ‘hidden’ and not apparent until the person tries to speak.

Not being able to communicate easily in the same way as other people can lead to feelings of frustration and isolation.

Although a person might have difficulties communicating through speech, they may be able to get their message across, for instance communicating through other means by using sign language or by writing down what they want to say. Some people use electronic communication aids to speak for them while others may use a spelling board or picture chart to communicate their needs.

  • Avoid shouting, interrupting or ignoring a person.
  • Check you have both understood. Don’t pretend you have understood when you haven’t!
  • Have a pen and paper handy.
  • Give the person time.
  • Look at the person as well as listen to them. Sometimes the meaning of a message can be very clear from the person’s facial expression or gesture, even when their speech is unintelligible.
  • Do not finish off a person’s sentences for them – you know how irritating this is when people do it to you.
  • Listen carefully and ask people with speech impairments to repeat what they have said if you don’t understand.
Hearing Impairments

Deaf and hard of hearing are the terms used when talking about all levels of hearing loss. Hard of hearing covers anybody who is not severely and profoundly deaf, but has any degree of hearing loss. This is a term often used by older people who have age related deafness; younger people often find ‘hard of hearing’ offensive. Deafened people are those who were born hearing and became severely or profoundly deaf later in life and deafblind people refers to anyone whose hearing and vision are both severely affected.

Deaf and hard of hearing people communicate in various ways. If their hearing loss is mild or moderate they may use a hearing aid, but even someone with a certain amount of hearing may find it difficult to hear what is said in a noisy environment.

If you want to talk to a deaf or hard of hearing person, you need to get his or her attention first. Make eye contact if you can, but if he or she is turned away from you, a light touch on the arm or waving your hand may help.

Deaf people will be able to tell a hearing person which is the best way to communicate with them. This may be to use sign language (if you can), clear lip speaking, writing things down or using gestures. Do not assume that a deaf or hard of hearing person can lip read or use sign language. Also, remember that with lip reading, it can be very tiring as most of it is context and guess work given that you can only read about 25% from the lips.

  • Sit or stand at the same level as the deaf or hard of hearing person.
  • Face the light and keep your face visible.
  • Use natural facial expressions, gestures and body language.
  • Do not put your hands near your face or wear sunglasses.
  • Repeat or try a different form of communicating something if the deaf and hard of hearing person finds it difficult to follow.
Mental Health/Emotional Difficulties

There are many forms of mental health problems affecting a substantial numbers of people. Such problems may include stress, depression anxiety disorders and schizophrenia. Seeing someone’s problems solely as an illness that requires medical treatment is far too narrow a view. Therefore many people prefer to talk about mental or emotional distress, rather than mental illness.

There are many ways of trying to understand mental distress. It can sometimes also be frightening to be with someone who is feeling desperate or acting strangely. However, we each have to think for ourselves to try to understand what the person is experiencing.

  • Be patient and calm.
  • Give the person plenty of time if there are decisions to be made.
  • Don’t be quick to judge.
  • If you are unsure of how to recognise individual mental health problems seek specialist help or advice.



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