How to Interact with People with Disabilities

Sometimes, those without disabilities struggle to interact with those who have disabilities. Non-disabled people may wonder if they’ll be able to find anything in common with disabled individuals. What if they accidentally say something rude or offensive? What if the person you’re speaking to is nonverbal? 

Interaction and communication with disabled individuals can look vastly similar to typical communication. If you keep in mind who you are talking to, and what their communication needs are, you should be able to successfully converse and interact with disabled individuals. 

How Do I Talk to a Disabled Person? 

Disabled people can, in many cases, both understand and communicate using age-appropriate language. This means, most often, you can talk to people with special needs just as you would talk to any other person. In fact, talking to a disabled person in a way that is not age-appropriate may come across as rude. When communicating with those who have developmental delays, language may need to be simplified. You can still communicate with developmentally delayed individuals, even though language may need to be simplified. It is important to remember that disabled individuals are people too, and they deserve to be given respect. When communicating with special needs individuals, be sure to keep the following in mind: 

  • Tone of voice: Speak to disabled individuals in an age-appropriate manner. Avoid talking to disabled individuals in a way that you would speak to a young child.
  • Enunciation and visibility: For those who are hard of hearing or deaf, you may need to speak more clearly. Some people may also need to see your face while you are speaking, so they can lip read, and therefore engage in the conversation. 
  • Gestures and eye contact: Much of the greater population relies on gestures and eye contact to help us understand meaning. The same can be true for individuals with disabilities, however, some individuals may not notice certain social cues and may have a harder time communicating.
  • Have patience: Due to developmental or cognitive disabilities, some people may need extra time to process and respond to conversation. 

Communication Devices and Apps for Special Needs 

Communicating with nonverbal adults can look similar to normal communication, however, a nonverbal individual may use an assistive device or app to communicate. These are typically referred to as AAC devices, or augmentative alternative communication devices, and they come with two control methods: eye-gaze, and touch screen. Eye-gaze communication devices have built in eye tracking software, which generates speech as an individual looks at different areas of a tablet screen. Other AAC devices are touch screen and can be downloaded on an existing device like a phone or tablet. Proloquo2Go is a popular text-to-speech app for Apple users. For those using Android devices, JabTalk may be an option. 

What Are Some Effective Ways to Communicate with Special Needs Individuals? 

People with disabilities may prefer specific communication styles due to their disability. For example, Autistic people, or people who have a disability that affects speech or communication may prefer to communicate in writing, while other disabled people may be okay with verbal communication. When communicating with disabled individuals, remember to address the person with a disability, rather than deferring to a caregiver. You’ll also want to follow some rules of disability etiquette so the conversation can go smoothly. 

Why is Communication Important for Special Needs Individuals? 

All people, whether they have a disability or not, benefit from communication. Communication not only teaches social skills, but it allows us to maintain relationships, and impacts overall mental and physical wellbeing. People with disabilities may already face isolation due to disability, therefore, communication is vital to helping special needs individuals maintain healthy relationships and a healthy lifestyle.  

Communicating with disabled people can be easy if you keep in mind who you are communicating with, and how that individual’s disability may affect them. Know that communication with disabled individuals can look very similar to communication with non-disabled individuals but be prepared to adapt your communication style depending on the needs of those around you. 

Understanding goes a long way, especially when it comes to communicating with disabled individuals. Familiarizing yourself with disability history, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), or even asking a friend about their diagnosis can open the door to more successful interaction with those who are disabled. 

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