Communication with Persons with Disabilities

by Deb Wade

In teaching high school students with disabilities for almost twenty-five years, I witnessed over and over again the power of words.  Words are, perhaps, the most powerful weapons in the human arsenal.  Words can build a person up or destroy.  I taught so many students who had been told by parents, relatives, and, yes, even teachers that they were “dumb,” “stupid,” or “worthless.”  The result?  These students believed themselves to be dumb, stupid and worthless.  They truly believed that they could not learn and, furthermore, didn’t deserve to learn.  Before I could even begin to teach these students how to enjoy a classic such as “Romeo and Juliet,” or learn how to solve an equation such as “2x = 4,” I first had to help them learn the truth that they were not worthless.  I had to first try and repair years of damage caused by words.

When we meet people who are different from us, we often tend to form snap judgments about them.  If we meet someone with a disability, we often place an immediate label on that person based on his or her disability.  For example, if the person has an intellectual disability, we often label that person as “unteachable” or, even worse, “worthless.”  If a person has a mobility disability that causes them to have to use a wheelchair, we often put on a label on them as being unable to take part in most functions of the church, assuming that they “can’t” simply because he/she is in a wheelchair.  These negative assumptions are far from the truth and do as much damage as the words “dumb, stupid and worthless” did to my students.  As Christians, we can and must do better than this!

We know that the number one reason why people with disabilities stay away from our churches is attitudes.  They want our churches to have a welcoming attitude toward people with disabilities.  We expect other people to be considerate in their behavior toward us, don’t we?  So, why can’t we be as considerate in our behavior towards our brothers and sisters with disabilities?  While each person and each disability is unique, I’ll give a brief overview of some situations and examples of how you might communicate with an individual with that particular disability.  The intent should always be to create a welcoming and relaxed environment for everyone in our churches.

Mobility or Other Physical Disability

  1. One of the most common mistakes people make in addressing people with disabilities is to assume that just because a person has one disability that he/she automatically has another disability as well.  Never assume that a person with mobility or other physical disability also has an intellectual disability.  Address the person as you would any other person.
  2. If the individual is in a wheelchair, always try and speak to him/her at eye level.  This is much more welcoming than standing above the person.
  3. Respect the person in the wheelchair’s space.  Do not rest/lean on the wheelchair.
  4. If a caregiver or attendant is with the individual, speak to the person and not to the caregiver/attendant.  Otherwise, you will be making the person feel “less than.”
  5. Remember that to a person in a wheelchair or using a walker, canes or crutches, these devices are like his/her legs.  So, never move them out of reach of the individual without permission.  If you do move them with permission, never leave the area until you return them to the person or make arrangements for someone else to return them to him/her.
  6. If someone is in a wheelchair and looks like he/she needs assistance, do not assume that he/she wants it.  Always ask before you grab the handle bars and start pushing. 
  7. If you have been asked to help guide a wheelchair down a ramp/incline, grasp the push handles firmly so that the chair doesn’t go too fast.
  8. If you have been asked to assist a person in a wheelchair to go up or down more than one step, tilt the chair back at all times while descending (or ascending) the stairs.
  9. The terms “Little People” and “Little Person” should be used instead of “dwarf.”
  10. Children are innocent and inquisitive.  Allow them to ask their questions of people with disabilities and allow the person with disabilities to answer them.


Intellectual Disability

  1. Do not assume that the person with intellectual disabilities is hard of hearing.
  2. When speaking with a person with intellectual disabilities be considerate, understanding, patient and polite. 
  3. Do not treat an adult like a child or be condescending. Use age appropriate topics and conversations.  Try and find things you have in common to discuss, such as movies, church, family, television, etc.
  4. When speaking with a person with intellectual disabilities, use simple words and short sentences, giving one piece of information at a time.  Repeat, if needed.
  5. Even if a person with intellectual disabilities may not be verbal enough to respond, you should still talk with him/her.  If appropriate, shake hands, and tell him/her your name and that you are pleased to meet him/her.
  6. Never assume what anyone can or cannot do.


Blind, Deaf-Blind, Vision Loss

  1. Always identify yourself when approaching a person who is blind, deaf-blind or has vision loss. 
  2. Never assume that because a person is blind or has vision loss that he/she is also Deaf or hard of hearing.  Use a natural tone of voice.
  3. The service animal is a working animal.  Do not distract the animal by attempting to pet it or offer it food unless you have permission to do so.  It is on the job!
  4. If you are helping a person with low vision or who is blind, let them hold your arm so he/she can walk slightly behind you, feeling the motion of your body.  This will allow them to know what to expect.  You should offer verbal cues as to what is ahead when approaching curbs, doorways, etc.  This is preferable to you holding the person’s arm.  However, remember that you should always ask the individual if help is needed FIRST!
  5. Always give prior warning before you touch a person who Blind, deaf-blind or has low vision unless it is an emergency.  If someone is in a dangerous situation, try to remain calm and give clear instructions in your warning to them, touching them if necessary.
  6. Despite what some people think, people with low vision or who are Blind, are perfectly comfortable with our using phrases such as “See you soon” or words such as “look” or “see.”
  7. When speaking with a person who is blind or has low vision, give verbal feedback to let him/her know you are listening/understanding.
  8. When you get ready to leave a person who is blind or has low vision, always tell him/her you are leaving.  Never leave him/her in a large open area, ask where he/she would like to go and ask if he/she would like you to lead him/her there before you go.


Speech or Language Disability

  1. Never assume that a person with a speech or language disability also has an intellectual disability or is hard of hearing.
  2. Speak in a normal tone of voice.
  3. If you do not understand what the person says, ask them to repeat it.  Never pretend that you understand something if you haven’t.
  4. Always give your full attention to the individual and be patient.
  5. Try and ask simple questions that can easily be answered with one word, such as “yes” or “no.”


Deaf or Hard of Hearing

  1. Always make sure that you have the individual’s attention before speaking.    When the person is facing you, gently tap him/her on the arm/elbow and make sure he/she is facing you before you speak.  If he/she is not facing you, use a gentle tap on the shoulder.  If the person is speaking with someone else, wait your turn.  Breaking eye contact with someone is considered rude.
  2. Always speak at a slow to moderate rate.  Don’t exaggerate your speech, or shout.  Make sure that your lips are visible to the person (i.e., don’t cover them with your hands or anything or turn your head away from the person’s view.)
  3. As always, speak to the individual and not to the caregiver/attendant/interpreter.  You speak to the person and let the interpreter transfer the information back and forth.  This lets the individual know that he/she is the one who is important to you, the one you really wish to speak with at that moment.
  4. Always be patient.  If necessary, repeat what you said.  If communication still proves to be a problem, try using paper and pencil.
  5. Do not use terms such as “hearing impaired” or “deaf and dumb.”
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