Do It Myself Blog – Glenda Watson Hyatt

Motivational Speaker

10 Tips for Communicating with People with Disabilities

Filed under: Accessibility 100 — by Glenda at 9:00 am on Thursday, May 15, 2008

Accessibility 100

Communication is the basis for all interaction between humans. When a disability is involved, the interaction is often hesitant, uncertain or even, unfortunately, avoided. Communicating with people with disabilities can be improved with these tips:

  1. When talking with a person with a disability, speak directly to the person rather than through a companion or sign language interpreter.

    I really dislike when someone turns to my husband for a response after asking me a question. Or, when a restaurant server asks, “What does she want?”

  2. When introduced to a person with a disability, offering to shake hands is appropriate. People with limited hand use or who wear an artificial limb can usually shake hands. (Shaking hands with the left hand is an acceptable greeting.)
  3. When meeting a person who is sight impaired, always identify yourself and others who may be with you. When talking in a group, remember to identify the person to whom you are speaking.
  4. If you offer assistance, wait until the offer is accepted. Then listen to or ask for instructions.

    I find it annoying when someone asks if I need help and then rushes in to help after I have kindly said no. Sometimes assistance is appreciated; other times I tolerate it as my good deed for the day so that someone else feels helpful.

  5. Treat adults as adults. Address people who have disabilities by their first names only when extending the same familiarity to all others. (Never patronize people who use wheelchairs by patting them on the head or shoulder.)
  6. Respect an individual’s personal space. Leaning on or hanging on to a person’s wheelchair or mobility device is similar to leaning or hanging on to a person and is generally considered annoying or, sometimes, even rude.

    If, however, you need to steady yourself for a moment, simply ask first.

  7. Listen attentively when you’re talking with a person who has difficulty speaking. Be patient and wait for the person to finish, rather than correcting or speaking for the person. If necessary, ask short questions that require short answers, a nod or shake of the head. Alternatively, enable the individual to write or type or use a communication device to communicate the message.

    Never pretend to understand if you are having difficulty doing so. Instead, repeat what you have understood and allow the person to respond. The response will clue you in and guide your understanding.

  8. When speaking with a person who uses a wheelchair or crutches or a person of short stature, place yourself at eye level by squatting down, leaning against a counter or taking a seat to facilitate the conversation, particularly if it may be a long one. This relieves the neck strain and the power imbalance perceived when someone is towering over another.

    Remember: My eye level is your fly level!
  9. To get the attention of a person who is Deaf or hard of hearing, tap the person on the shoulder or wave your hand. Look directly at the person and speak clearly and expressively to determine if the person can read your lips. If you are a fast talker, slow down your speech slightly to make it easier to understand.

    Not all people who are Deaf can read lips. For those who do lip read, be sensitive to their needs by placing yourself so that you face the light source and keep hands, cigarettes and food away from your mouth when speaking. Pen and paper can also facilitate communication.

    The easiest way to ask if a person wants to communicate by lip reading is to point to your lips with a questioning look, or by writing is to make the motion of writing in your palm with a questioning look.

  10. Relax. Don’t be embarrassed if you happen to use accepted, common expressions such as “See you later,” or “Did you hear about that?” that seems to relate to a person’s disability. Don’t be afraid to ask questions when you’re unsure of what to do.

Accessibility 100 is a series of 100 easy-to-implement, free and inexpensive tips for improving accessibility for people with disabilities. This is a community project. Feel free to leave your comments, questions and ideas for future Accessibility 100 posts.

Get the entire series by subscribing to this blog by filling in the form in the upper right corner or by subscribing to the RSS feed.

If you enjoyed this post, consider buying me a chai tea latte. Thanks kindly.

Related Posts


  1. Do It Myself Blog - Glenda Watson Hyatt » How Small Business Can Welcome Customers with Disabilities
  2. Do It Myself Blog – Glenda Watson Hyatt » 8 Simple Ways to Better Serve Customers with Disabilities During the Holiday Shopping Rush


Comment by Becky McCray

May 15, 2008 @ 10:27 am

Great article! You are off to a terrific start on the Accessibility 100, Glenda.

Comment by Marjolein Katsma

May 15, 2008 @ 10:33 am

What I learned by dealing with people with disabilities is to always concentrate on what they can do, instead of what they cannot. Generally, simply to work around their disability they have acquired abilities and skills you don’t have, and by focusing on that you’ll not only be able to communicate easier but get on a more “even footing” as it were. And when unsure of what to do – just ask!

Comment by Glenda

May 15, 2008 @ 10:47 am

Thanks Becky!

Marjolein, you’re bang on! Focus on the abilities and ask when uncertain. Thank you for adding those tips!

Comment by Christine

May 15, 2008 @ 12:30 pm

This is an awesome article. VERY helpful for those of us who (sometimes) aren’t sure how to handle a situation. Thank you Glenda!!!

Comment by AnneShirley Manion

May 15, 2008 @ 7:53 pm

Great information Glenda. Keep Up the good work.

Comment by Jana

May 16, 2008 @ 9:34 am

Very interesting.

I always wondered how to know if a deaf person could read lips, without being offensive or wierd lol

On a side note about people of short stature… my advice on that?

“My nose level is your armpit level. Please deoderize accordingly!”

Comment by Glenda

May 17, 2008 @ 12:23 pm

Jana, I love that! I’ll remember that saying. With my current scooter, I’m up higher – a hot summer’s day on a full Skytrain is pretty ripe!

Comment by Harmony

May 17, 2008 @ 10:08 pm

Thanks for number 10, I still feel embarrassed when I challenged my now brother-in-law to a game of rocks, paper, scissors. He was born with no arms below his elbows. Yikes!

Comment by Diane

May 23, 2008 @ 10:35 am

Wow, I learned quite a bit by reading this. Great tips! I also like the last tip – I have a tendency to say things before my brain has the chance to realize what I’m actually saying, so it’s nice to know these things do happen.

Comment by Jeanne Heydecker

January 21, 2009 @ 2:38 pm

Great post. My aunt and uncle are both deaf and have two hearing children, both adults. Have you posted on the lives of children brought up in that situation? Are there studies? I’m interested because both of my cousin’s lives are so different from each other. One is a sensitive, caring individual who is comfortable in both deaf and hearing environments, but the other has nearly no contact, almost a denial of her deaf parents or the deaf community. I’d love to know your thoughts on how we can empathize and perhaps bring her back into the fold of accepting us as her family.

Personally, I think every human being is disabled in some way, some of us have disabilities that are just more obvious/visible. I think finding our abilities and using them as best we can is the best way to succeed. Thanks for being out there and blogging on this subject.


Comment by Sandra R

September 9, 2009 @ 9:27 am

Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. :) Cheers! Sandra. R.

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