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Is communicating with people with disabilities any different?

Updated: Jun 10, 2022


According to WHO, over 1 million people live with some form of disability and the number is increasing at an alarming rate. The major contributing factors for the rapid increase are mainly growing life stress, chronic health conditions, and shift in the demographic trends of the global population.

United Nations’ goal for 2030 is a fully inclusive world where people with disabilities would have equal rights and freedom. This is a big shift from viewing people with disability as objects for charity to viewing them as subjects with full rights and empowering them to be able to claim those rights just like any other individual would do normally. Powerful, isn’t it?

In order to realise the importance of this 2030 goal of the UN, one must understand that a disability does not make a person any less capable of doing things in their own unique way and hence cannot be marginalised. Disability can occur to anyone during the course of their life. An individual living a normal life with no disability can suddenly encounter a tragic incident or an accident and can acquire a disability.

A change is required at an individual level besides just governments visualising a goal and imposing it. We all contribute to this change with our attitude, behaviour and communication styles and breaking those social stigmas that we have been carrying for so long. It is up to us to choose, whether we see the disability as a limitation or do we value a person as they are with all the unique qualities, gifts and abilities.

Communication or interaction style one may adopt while interacting with a person with a disability

For some people, communicating with a person with a disability can be unnerving and having no prior experience or exposure, they are feared of saying or doing something unusual that may upset the person with a disability.

It is ok to have such thoughts, but I would say that those are just self-talks and may not necessarily be true or valid. In order to do a great conversation, an important thing is to be able to listen, value and respect.

Drawing upon my years of experience in disability support service, I have seen interactions and communications where a person with a disability will be treated like a small child. Definitely one must sensibly adopt a style of communication that is appropriate and is easy for a person with a disability to understand, but it should be done no different than normal and must be done in an age-appropriate manner.

To make it easier, the hypothetical scenarios below may summarise some of the do and don’ts that will surely give you some tips on how to communicate when interacting with a person with a disability -

1. Elly is a 19-year-old girl having a physical disability – What is Elly’s preference for interacting with her?

Elly uses a manual wheelchair, to move around in her home and in order to get to places of his interest.

Elly gets some support from her support provider for planned outings and other activities. Both Elly and her support provider would travel via public transport to go for outings.

Elly’s wheelchair is her personal space. It is a part of Elly’s life. Elly would like if people interacting with Elly should not see her wheelchair any differently to her.

One should not touch or push the wheelchair without Elly’s permission unless consented to by her.

Elly would appreciate people talking to her by making eye contact, as Elly considers her an important sign of respect. This would mean not looking down on her while standing however coming on to a right level and adjusting the height by leaning or sitting down while communicating.

2. Stephen is a 40 years old man having a vision impairment – how should one communicate with Stephen?

Stephen uses a guide dog to support him while he is out and about visiting his places of interest.

While Stephen is on the way to his outing with his guide dog, he interacts with people. Stephen would like people to address him by name, clearly speaking and not raising voice.

Not being able to visually see signals due to the visual impairment, verbalising any thoughts or repeating sentences may help a lot.

Stephen’s guide dog while it is in its harness and on duty supporting him, must not be patted or distracted.

Stephen will appreciate it if someone verbally tells him if they are moving away from him or to another room. This will inform him that the person is no longer there sitting and would not embarrass Stephen by talking to an empty space.

3. Grace is a 26-year-old lady who has hearing impairment with a physical disability – what is Grace’s ideal communication style?

Grace uses hearing aids owing to her impaired hearing and she has a very minimal hearing ability. She uses crutches to move around and receives support from her service provider in her home and for outings and activities. Grace travels via both public transport and in the support person’s own vehicle.

People around Grace interact with her by gently tapping on her shoulder, or giving some visual signal to get Grace’s attention.

Grace's support person faces her directly and maintains proper eye contact while speaking to her.

Grace appreciates is people speak slowly and allow her to read the lip movement by not covering her mouth as this can make the communication more accurate for Grace.

Grace can still easily communicate without having to shout or speak loudly.

4. Barry is a teenage boy and has an Intellectual disability – how would you talk to Barry?

Barry lives with his parents and receives support from his service provider twice a week to take him to activities.

While at home or away on activities, Barry dislikes if someone just starts talking to him, not calling him by his name and making no eye contact.

Barry understands it better when questions are made simple and simple language is used using gestures or visual information. He often relies on visual cues while he is been spoken for better understanding.

Such a style of communication is more effective with Barry and keeps him calm and happy.

5. Peter is a 29-year-old man who has a mental illness. How would you interact?

Mental illness is more complex and it refers to a group of illnesses that significantly affects how a person feels, thinks, behaves, and interacts with other people.

Different types of mental illnesses exist. More details relating to types and symptoms can be found from this link -

In this scenario, we have talked about Peter, who lives in a shared living arrangement (SIL home) – a type of disability housing where peter receives 24*7 care for his daily living needs.

When Peter meets a new person, his typical reaction would be to look at a person suspiciously, and not respond when greeted. When you tell him why you are there, he will still pay no attention and would look at a corner of the room and will start laughing not stopping for a little while.

Such behaviour may be daunting to some and it is important to stay calm.

This kind of behaviour is displayed because a person with a mental Illness can see and listen to things that we cannot. This condition is termed Psychosis.

When you are with a person suffering from mental illness, the way you approach is important and pay special attention to how you react to a situation of escalated behaviour. Below are some of the common tips to be followed:

  • Remain calm and friendly, and speak quietly.

  • Be a good listener, give Peter the opportunity to talk and open up but don’t press.

  • Where possible ask questions to clarify Peter’s feelings or what he is experiencing at that moment.

  • Ask simple and easy to understand questions.

  • Give Peter time to process questions and respond.

  • Don’t approach Peter suddenly, as he doesn’t know you at all and this may make him anxious.

  • Listen by interest, to what Peter is saying to gain an understanding of his current reality.

  • Be respectful and don’t express any judgements about what Peter says and what he is experiencing.

For more information, please visit the below web pages -

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