A guide to communicating effectively with people with disabilities

A guide to communicating effectively with people with disabilities


Communication is the first step toward forming valuable relationships. But it’s about more than just stringing some words together. There are many aspects of communication, such as body language and knowing how to address someone the right way.

Some may find it challenging to communicate with an individual with disabilities for fear of using incorrect terminology, being unsure about how to address them, and having little knowledge about communicating properly with individuals with disabilities.

The methods and strategies for effective communication vary depending on the disability, which means that there are many ways to connect with individuals with disabilities. 

Let’s dive deeper into what they are.

A few general points to keep in mind

Before we go into communication tips, there are a few things you should know before engaging with an individual with a disability.

It’s okay to make mistakes

It’s normal and perfectly alright to make a mistake when you’re speaking to people with disabilities for the first time. Even when you’ve learned how to communicate with them, your first engagement with them might not always go the way you planned.

Empathise with their situation

When communicating with an individual with disabilities, try to put yourself in their shoes and understand how they would want people to talk to them and what they may be feeling. Most individuals with disabilities want to be treated just like everyone else.

Don’t patronise them

If you’re speaking to an adult with disabilities, treat them as adults—avoid speaking to them like children. If there are other adults present in the conversation, make sure the individual with the disability is included in the discussion.

Always ask before offering help

Many individuals with disabilities are capable of accomplishing certain tasks by themselves, and most of the time, they may not ask for any help. Even if you want to lend a hand, only do so if they ask you for assistance.

Many individuals with disabilities have their own way of getting things done, and it’s important to respect their boundaries.

Listen to them

Take your time and listen to what they have to say, and if you don’t understand something they said, ask them to clarify—never pretend to understand. The more you learn about an individual with disabilities, the easier it will be to communicate with them. 

Speak directly to the person with the disability

If the person you’re speaking to has a carer, always direct the conversation to the individual with the disability, not their carer. 

Sometimes their carers may also act as their interpreters if the person is non-verbal. In this case, you should still speak directly to the person but turn to the interpreter when you want to understand the person under their care.

Respect their space

Some people with physical disabilities (This link takes you to a page that gives you more insight into people with physical disabilities) may use wheelchairs and crutches, and it’s important to remember that these devices are part of their personal space—never handle them without asking the user’s permission.

Don’t make decisions for them

Everyone values their independence. If you’re going to discuss something important with people with disabilities, allow them to have their say in the conversation and let them make their own decisions—unless they explicitly ask for help in decision making.

Communicating with different kinds of people with disabilities

Now we’ll take a look at how you can communicate effectively with people based on their disability.

Physical disability

  • Always maintain eye contact when you speak with them. If they have any visible, physical changes caused by their illness, avoid staring at them when you’re talking. 

Many individuals with physical deformities are very sensitive about certain aspects of their condition, so staring will make them feel more uncomfortable.

  • If the person you’re speaking to is a wheelchair user or is confined to a bed, find a place to sit so that you can speak to them at eye level.

Speech impairment

  • First and foremost, never assume that a person with a speech impairment won’t be able to understand what you’re saying. 

Depending on the nature of their disability, many people with speech impairments can understand regular speech perfectly, even though they may have trouble speaking themselves.

  • Always be patient with an individual with disabilities when they’re trying to communicate. Let them take their time to say what they want to say and never try to finish their sentences for them. If you want to ask them something, ask questions that only need short answers, like a yes or no question.
  • Alternatively, you can ask them to communicate through writing if they find it easier to express themselves that way.

Intellectual disability

  • Before you start talking to an adult living with an intellectual disability (This link will take you to a blog post about how to support adults living with intellectual disabilities), make sure you get their attention. Calling them by their first name may help them turn their attention and focus to you.
  • Be careful with your body language. Many individuals with physical disabilities depend on verbal cues to understand what someone is saying. With this in mind, try to have some visual information to help them understand you.
  • Always be direct and specific about what you’re trying to say. Try not to speak using metaphors, acronyms and abstracts, as this could confuse some people with intellectual disabilities.
  • Keep all of your questions simple and clear, and make sure your answers are short and easy to understand.
  • Don’t speak too loud and keep your tone as natural as possible. Also, avoid speaking too fast. 

Visual disabilities

  • People with vision-related disabilities can’t rely on visual cues, so make sure that you verbalise everything you want to tell them. Use a natural voice when speaking to them, and avoid speaking too loudly.
  • Before leaving the room, always tell a person with vision impairment that you’re leaving.

Good communication starts with a few small steps

Knowing the right ways to communicate with a person with disabilities can be a bit difficult at first, but after spending some time with them and getting to know them, communication will become more natural.

If you want to learn more about how to communicate effectively with a person with disabilities, or if you want to know more about how you can enrich their lives—get in touch with a disability support service provider in your area.

Resizable text