How to Communicate with People with Disabilities

Cheryl Kohls of the Intercultural Communications Institute submitted the following tips in a presentation called “Like I’m Not Even There: Communication and People with Disabilities.” You can read the full document here.

Disabled Children Require Respect

  • Childhood is a time when a person’s identity is developed. Therefore, we must treat children with disabilities with respect and dignity.
  • Children with disabilities often hear words with negative connotations: victim, suffering, handicapped.
  • Children with disabilities are frequently rejected because they are perceived as damaged.
  • Children with disabilities learn strategies to ease others discomfort but do not learn coping skills for their own emotional well-being.
  • Children with disabilities will often choose to avoid communication altogether rather than be disrespected or disregarded.

People Are Not Their Disabilities

  • Do not use a person’s diagnosis as a descriptor of the person. When we make the diagnosis more important than the person, we devalue and disrespect them, and violate their trust.
  • Address people with disabilities directly–do not treat them as though they are invisible or incapable of understanding you.

Your Attitude Can Alienate People with Disabilities

  • Do not insist on helping a person with a disability. Many people with disabilities pride themselves on their independence; they may perceive your insistence as condescending.
  • Many people with disabilities prefer to ask for assistance when they need it. By asking for help, they maintain control of the situation.
  • It is not always clear to the able-bodied person whether assistance is necessary. When in doubt, just ask. Remember to choose your words carefully and strive for respect.