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Communicating With and About People with Disabilities

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In communication with people with disabilities, it can often be difficult to determine how to best interact with them. Examine life with a disability, then learn how to communicate with and about people with disabilities. Updated: 11/19/2021

Life With a Disability

See this guy? This is a person. So is she. He is too. And him. And her. These are all people. Yes, you may think this is obvious, but I mention it because these are people with some form of either mental or physical disability. We sometimes have a tendency, generally without any malicious intent, to not completely treat people with disabilities as average people. We learn that somebody is living with a disability and we assume we understand them; we treat them as a category rather than a person. This is especially true when it comes to communication. Now, I know that nobody wants to be offensive; most of us just honestly don't know the best way to act, so I'm going to give you the secret, right now. The best way to communicate with people with disabilities is…to communicate with them like people. That's it. And that means, be polite, have good manners. Okay yes, there are some special considerations, and we'll talk about those in a minute, but the bottom line is not to be so nervous about communicating with people living with disabilities that you feel the need to treat them differently. We should be aware of unique issues they may deal with, but we should always remember that people are people, no matter what. Sometimes, good manners are all you need.

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Communicating With People With Disabilities

When we interact with people who are living with a disability, we want to hit that balance of treating them like a person but still being sensitive to any unique needs they may have. Let's start at the beginning of an interaction. So, you meet someone with a disability - what do you do? Shake their hand. That's the polite way to introduce yourself to anyone, and it shows that you are interested in a respectful interaction. If that person is unable to actually shake your hand, they will let you know, but generally, people appreciate the gesture. It's not insensitive, it just show that you see them as a functional adult, not as somebody incapable of an interaction.

So, now you're communicating. Again, the basic rules of good manners apply. Look the other person in the eye. If they are deaf, still speak directly to them, not to their interpreter. And don't feel the need to pretend that their disability doesn't exist. It's okay to acknowledge the unique issues in people's lives, just be respectful about it. It's even okay to make mistakes. Chances are that person has heard that mistake before and will understand. This communication is going well, but there is one big issue we need to address. There are some things with which people with disabilities may require help. Don't just jump in and help without asking first. Yes, people usually try to help out of good intentions, but people with disabilities still want to be treated as adults and have their space respected. So, ask first, and wait for the other person to respond. Really, there's nothing too surprising here. It's basic good manners.

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