How to communicate to people with disabilities
There are many types and degrees of disability. Openly communicating and responding to an individual's needs is key to maintaining positive interactions. If you're not sure about the best approach, just ask a person with a disability how you can best communicate with them.
On this page:
- Physical disabilities
- Vision loss
- Hearing loss
- Speech or language impairments
- Learning disabilities
- Intellectual or developmental disabilities
- Mental health disabilities
- Assistive devices
- Service animals
- Support persons
- People with disabilities who need to access your goods or services
- Inclusive language
Only some people with physical disabilities use a wheelchair. Someone with a spinal cord injury may use crutches while someone with severe arthritis or a heart condition may have difficulty walking longer distances.
- If you need to have a lengthy conversation with someone who uses a wheelchair or scooter, consider sitting so you can make eye contact at the same level.
- Don’t touch items or equipment, such as canes or wheelchairs, without permission.
- If you have permission to move a person’s wheelchair, don’t leave them in an awkward, dangerous or undignified position, such as facing a wall or in the path of opening doors.
Vision loss can restrict someone’s ability to read, locate landmarks or see hazards. Some individuals may use a guide dog or a white cane, while others may not.
- When you know someone has vision loss, don’t assume the individual can’t see you. Many people who have low vision still have some sight.
- Identify yourself when you approach and speak directly to the individual
- Ask if they would like you to read any printed material out loud to them (for example, a menu or schedule of fees).
- When providing directions or instructions, be precise and descriptive.
- Offer your elbow to guide them if needed.
People who have hearing loss may be D/deaf, deafened or hard of hearing. They may also be oral deaf – unable to hear, but prefer to talk instead of using sign language. These terms are used to describe different levels of hearing and/or the way a person’s hearing was diminished or lost.
- Once someone has identified themselves as having hearing loss, make sure you are in a well-lit area where they can see your face and read your lips.
- As needed, attract the individual’s attention before speaking. Try a gentle touch on the shoulder or wave of your hand.
- If the individual uses a hearing aid, reduce background noise or move to a quieter area.
- If necessary, ask if another method of communicating would be easier (for example, using a pen and paper).
A person who is deafblind may have some degree of both hearing and vision loss. Many people who are deafblind will be accompanied by an intervenor, a professional support person who helps with communication.
- An individual who is deafblind is likely to explain to you how to communicate with them, perhaps with an assistance card or a note.
- Speak directly to the individual, not to the intervenor.
Cerebral palsy, hearing loss or other conditions may make it difficult for a person to pronounce words or may cause slurring. Some people who have severe difficulties may use a communication board or other assistive devices.
- Don’t assume that a person with a speech impairment also has another disability.
- Whenever possible, ask questions that can be answered with “yes” or a “no”.
- Be patient. Don’t interrupt or finish someone’s sentences for them.
The term “learning disabilities” refers to a variety of disorders. One example is dyslexia, which affects how a person takes in or retains information. This disability may become apparent when a person has difficulty reading material or understanding the information you are providing.
- Be patient – people with some learning disabilities may take a little longer to process information, to understand and to respond.
- Try to provide information in a way that takes into account the person’s disability . For example, some people with learning disabilities find written words difficult to understand, while others may have problems with numbers and math.
Developmental or intellectual disabilities, such as Down Syndrome, can limit a person’s ability to learn, communicate, do everyday physical activities and live independently. You may not know that someone has this disability unless you are told.
- Don’t make assumptions about what a person can do.
- Use plain language.
- Provide one piece of information at a time.
Mental health issues can affect a person’s ability to think clearly, concentrate or remember things. Mental health disability is a broad term for many disorders that can range in severity. For example, some people may experience anxiety due to hallucinations, mood swings, phobias or panic disorder.
- If you sense or know that someone has a mental health disability be sure to treat them with the same respect and consideration you have for everyone else.
- Be confident, calm and reassuring.
- If someone appears to be in crisis, ask them to tell you the best way to help.
An assistive device is a tool, technology or other mechanism that enables a person with a disability to do everyday tasks and activities, such as moving, communicating or lifting. Personal assistive devices can include things like wheelchairs, hearing aids, white canes or speech amplification devices.
- Don’t touch or handle any assistive device without permission.
- Don’t move assistive devices or equipment, such as canes and walkers, out of an individual’s reach.
- Bring awareness to the accessible features in the immediate environment that are appropriate to their needs (e.g. public phones with TTY service, accessible washrooms, etc.).
- If your organization offers any equipment or devices for people with disabilities, make sure you know how to use them. It could be helpful to have instruction manuals handy or an instruction sheet posted where the device is located or stored.
Some examples of assistive devices that your organization might offer include:
- Lifts, which raises or lowers people who use mobility devices
- Accessible interactive kiosk, which might offer information or services in Braille or through audio headsets
People with vision loss may use a guide dog, but there are other types of service animals as well. Hearing alert animals help people who are Deaf, deafened, oral deaf, or hard of hearing. Other service animals are trained to alert an individual to an oncoming seizure.
Under the standard, service animals must be allowed on the parts of your premises that are open to the public. In some instances, service animals will not be permitted in certain areas by law (for example, a restaurant kitchen).
- Remember that a service animal is not a pet. Avoid touching or addressing them.
- Avoid making assumptions about the animal. If you’re not sure if the animal is a pet or a service animal, ask the owner.
Some people with disabilities may be accompanied by a support person, such as an intervenor. A support person can be a personal support worker, a volunteer, a family member or a friend. A support person might help a person with a variety of things from communicating, to helping with mobility, personal care or medical needs.
Welcome support people to your workplace or business. They are permitted in any part of your premises that is open to the public. If your organization is one that charges admission, such as a movie theatre or bowling alley, provide notice, in advance, about what admission fee will be charged for a support person.
- If you’re not sure which person has a disability take your lead from the person using or requesting your goods or services, or simply ask.
- Speak directly to the person with the disability, not to their support person.
If you notice that someone is having difficulty accessing your goods or services, a good starting point is to simply ask “How can I help you?”
They are your best source for information about their needs. A solution can be simple and they will likely appreciate your attention and consideration.
Inclusive language is language that is free from terminology, tones or phrases that reflect stereotyped or discriminatory views of particular people or groups. Explore the following inclusive language guidelines:
- (PDF file) Inclusive Language in Media: A Canadian Style Guide (external link) (Source: Humber College)
- Includes guidance and terminology when speaking about persons with disabilities.
- (PDF file) Words Matter: Guidelines on using inclusive language in the workplace (external link) (Source: British Columbia Public Service)
- Includes guidance on writing about culture, ancestry, religion, marital/family status, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, and more.
- A Way with Words and Images: Suggestions for the portrayal of people with disabilities (external link) (Source: Government of Canada)