COMMUNICATING WITH AND ABOUT PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES
Communicating About People with Disabilities
A key to any effective communication is to focus on the information that needs to be transmitted and
how best to do that. Positive language empowers. When writing or speaking about people with disabilities,
it is important to put the person first. Group designations such as "the retarded" or "the disabled"
are inappropriate. They do not reflect the individuality, equality or dignity of people with
disabilities. Furthermore, words like "normal person" imply that the person with a disability isn't normal,
whereas "person without a disability" is descriptive but not negative. The following chart shows more
examples of positive and negative descriptions.
|person with an intellectual, cognitive, developmental disability
||the retarded; mentally defective
|person who is blind, person who is visually impaired
|person with a disability
||the disabled or handicapped
|person with a hearing loss
||deaf and dumb; suffers from a hearing loss
|person who has multiple sclerosis
||afflicted by MS
|person with cerebral palsy
|person with epilepsy, person with seizure disorder
||an epileptic or a person with fits
|person who uses a wheelchair
||confined or restricted to a wheelchair
|person who has muscular dystrophy
||stricken by MD
|person with a physical disability,
||crippled; lame; deformed; physically disabled
|unable to speak, uses synthetic speech
|person with psychiatric disability
|person who is successful, productive
||has overcome his/her disability; is courageous (when it implies the person has courage because he/she copes with a disability)
NOTE: Remember, appropriate terminology changes with the times and people’s preferences may vary. If in doubt, ask. Most people with disabilities will be willing to help you.
Communicating with People with Disabilities
Be Courteous and Respectful
- Talk directly to the person, not a companion or the sign language interpreter. Extend your hand to shake hands.
If the individual does not shake hands, he or she will tell you. It’s also acceptable to shake hands with the
- If the person has a speech impairment and you are having difficulty understanding her or him, ask the
person to repeat, rather than pretend to understand. Listen and repeat back what you think you heard to
ensure effective communication.
- If you offer assistance, wait until the offer is accepted. Then, if unsure how to help, ask the person
with the disability for instructions.
- Treat adults as adults. Don’t talk down to them or address them by their first names unless also
extending the same familiarity to others.
- Don't be embarrassed if you happen to use expressions such as "See you later." or "Did you hear about
that?" Although those phrases may seem to relate to the person's disability, they are simply common
expressions in our language.
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Adapted from Effective Interaction: Communicating With and About People with Disabilities
in the Workplace.