Talking with people with disabilities is just like talking to any other person, because they are like any other person.
However, there are several things to keep in mind when communicating with a person with a disability.
Speak to the individual
People with visible disabilities are often ignored in conversations, even ones that they are clearly a part of. For instance, if you’re having a conversation with a person who has a human interpreter, remember to speak to the person, not the interpreter.
Don’t forget to make eye contact with the people you’re speaking to. Individuals who are below the average eyeline—for instance, people who use wheelchairs—are often overlooked in a conversation and treated as if they aren’t there. If you are able to pull up a seat to chat with this person, do so. Bending down to speak to them can be seen as patronising.
Now that they have your attention, make sure you have theirs. For blind or deaf individuals, a light tap on the arm or wave is appropriate to indicate you would like to speak with them. When speaking with a deaf person, make sure they are able to see your mouth – check out these see-through masks (no endorsement applies).
Respect their body and property
A wheelchair is not an armrest. For many people with disabilities who use assistive devices, the device is an extension of themselves. Just like you wouldn’t caress someone’s face without their permission, do not touch a person’s assistive device.
Similarly, do not pet service animals. They have an important job, and a distraction can be detrimental to both the dog and the human.
Don’t make assumptions
If a person with a disability needs you to speak louder, or more slowly, or write down what you’re saying, they will ask you to do so. You’re not aiding anyone by starting a conversation with someone by shouting because you noticed they had a hearing aid. Similarly, do not speak to a person with a disability as if they are a child, unless, of course, they are a child.
If you believe that a person with a disability needs assistance, ask. Always get express permission before touching someone—for example, taking someone’s arm to guide them to a location—or touching someone’s assistive device—for example, pushing someone’s wheelchair. Spontaneous unwanted help is dangerous and frustrating.
Use natural language
You should not change the way you speak when communicating with a person with disabilities. For instance, while speaking with a blind person, don’t avoid phrases that relate to vision that are part of the natural language (asking “Have you seen this movie?” is much more natural than “Have you listened to this movie?”).
One exception to this is when you are speaking with an individual with a cognitive disorder, such as autism, who may have difficulty understanding idioms, metaphors, etc. In this case, be sure to use plain, straightforward language.
If you’re unsure of how to communicate with someone with a disability, ask them. Ask about the person’s needs related to their disability, and don’t pretend not to notice the disability.
However, do not ask invasive, personal questions. While it might be appropriate to ask a person if they were born blind, in order to determine if they can visualise colours and other descriptors, it is usually not appropriate to ask a person how they became disabled.
One valuable thing you can do if you know you will be spending time with a person with a certain disability is to conduct some research on the internet to learn more about the best ways to communicate with individuals with that disability. While each person has their unique preferences, this is usually a good place to start.
A note on invisible disabilities
Not all disabilities are visible. Just because someone does not use a white cane, wheelchair or sign language does not mean they don’t require accommodations in other ways (e.g., using Disability Parking or requiring more time for a task).
And remember: if an individual claims to be disabled but you do not notice any signs of a disability, that person still does not owe you an explanation of their disability. Disabilities are personal and often private. If someone asks for an accommodation (such as a chair while presenting a talk), please provide one without comment or questions. How someone chooses to disclose their disability, if they choose to do so at all, is entirely up to them.