Tips for how to talk to a person with special needs or a disability

Tips for how to talk to a person with special needs or a disability

You may feel uncomfortable or nervous talking to someone with a disability or special needs because you may not know how to act or what to say. These tips can help you feel more at ease because you will know what to say and what not to say to a person with disabilities. About one out of every five people in the U.S. has a disability according to the U.S. Census Bureau, so it’s helpful to learn some ideas for how you can interact with people more easily. This is some general advice, but remember that all people with disabilities are individuals who may have their own opinions on these matters.

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  • Speak directly to a person with special needs or a disability even if you’re not sure whether they can respond to you. If they can’t, a caregiver will often translate for you or respond for them. Don’t feel awkward about it. That’s a normal interaction for them.
  • Make an extra effort to include people with disabilities and special needs. Many people with disabilities get excluded from social interactions because people aren’t sure how to act. Invite them and simply ask if there are any special accommodations they may need.
  • Avoid stereotypes such as “All people with Down syndrome are happy all the time”. People with disabilities and special needs are individuals just like any other person.
  • Offer to shake hands as you usually would – anticipate a difference. It’s ok to offer your left hand if a person can’t use their right or some people may shake with a prosthetic. It may feel awkward for you but it’s a normal handshake for the other person, so don’t feel weird about it.
  • Allow extra time for people with special needs and disabilities to do things.
  • Be mindful of the extra space a person may need, for instance moving to make space for a person in a wheelchair to maneuver through a tight space.
  • Ask if someone needs help but wait for the help to be accepted before jumping in. It’s ok to do common courtesies without asking, such as holding a door open for someone in a wheelchair or with a cane.
  • Be mindful of your words and work to remove offensive expressions from your everyday language. Expressions such as “that’s retarded”, “I almost had a heart attack” or “that referee must be blind” are offensive. If you do slip up and say something offensive, simply apologize or say “excuse me”. Don’t worry if you use a common expression such as “You see what I mean” to a blind person.
  • When interacting with a person in a wheelchair, remember the chair is just a tool that helps them get around – it doesn’t represent who they are. However, the chair is part of their personal space. Be mindful about touching, leaning on or moving someone’s wheelchair without their permission. Place yourself on eye level with a person in a wheelchair if you will be in a prolonged conversation.
  • If a person has a service dog or therapy dog, the dog is a working animal. Always ask before touching or distracting the dog – remember, it has a job to do. Service dogs may be any breed. It may be wearing a vest but it is not required by law, so if in doubt, it’s ok to ask. Legally, businesses may only ask if a dog is a service dog and what type of service the dog provides. It is illegal to deny entry to a service dog but if it is disruptive, a business may ask the owner to remove the dog.
  • When speaking with someone who is deaf or hard of hearing, be patient and let them finish talking. If they ask you to repeat something, don’t say “never mind.” Lip reading is common so speak slowly and clearly. Some people may prefer communicating in writing or with a device. To get their attention, it’s ok to tap them on the shoulder. If they have a sign language interpreter assisting them, speak directly to the person who is deaf, not to the interpreter.
  • When greeting a person who is blind or who has a visual impairment, identify yourself and others in the room, including children and pets. If you offer assistance, wait until it’s accepted.
  • Cognitive impairments or intellectual disabilities affect about 12 out of every 1000 people in the U.S. Speak to them the same way you would speak with anyone else. They are just a person, with thoughts, opinions, likes and dislikes like anyone else.
  • People with Autism, brain injuries, nervous system disorders and other diagnoses may have trouble processing sensory input. They may get overwhelmed by things such as noises, crowds, touch, certain lighting, temperature, textures, smells or other things. Sensory overload may cause a person to have a meltdown, scream, rock, spin, flap their hands. They may “shut down” or manifest other behaviors that seem strange or alarming to you. Consider that a sound that is a normal volume to you can sound like a blasting jet engine to them; a florescent light flickering can look like a strobe light; a slightly warm day may cause them to sweat profusely; a soft touch can be physically painful; a strange texture brushing their chin or in their mouth can make someone gag and vomit. Be patient, calm and considerate.
  • Appearances can be deceiving. Some people may have trouble speaking or moving, or may not appear outwardly responsive. They may look as though they have an intellectual disability yet have typical intelligence. Other people who look “normal” may have an invisible disability, such as behavioral or social disorder, cognitive disorder or something else.
  • Some people may have a hard time with social interactions. They might speak too loudly, fixate on topics, stand too close, not make eye contact, flap their hands or have a tic. They might not “have a filter” or may not understand sarcasm or humor. Remember that they are doing their best to interact with you and it may be difficult or uncomfortable for them. You can help by listening to them and being understanding.
  • It’s ok to ask about a special need or disability, but the person may or may not wish to discuss it. It is just one element of who they are.
  • Many people ignore or avoid people with disabilities and special needs, but they are just people who want to be accepted and included like anyone else. Be yourself and be accepting. In general, the special needs community is very accepting so don’t worry if you make mistakes. It may take you a while to be comfortable – be patient with yourself.

We hope these tips for talking to a person with a disability were helpful for you. Do you have more ideas? Add your comments below and help add to the conversation!

Please comment below and share your experience with us, or give us a feedback about this article. If you think some tips are not included here, please let us know so that we could share them with the rest.