5 Tips for Interacting with People with Disabilities

people with disabilities
Photo by parisneto

I had a bizarre dream one recent morning.  I was in a classroom for a conference with some familiar people. I was asked to give a speech unprepared and I started to freak out. I struggled to conjure up a good topic but people in my dream rooted for me to tell them about sign language. “Boring,” I thought but I started my lecture but soon after, it hit me. I could teach them how to be approachable, friendly and accessible for diverse clients or coworkers with disabilities. However, I’ll be offering my knowledge from the Deaf perspective since that’s my area of expertise ;-) but what I’m about to share with you should be applicable everywhere. Anyway, when this revelation came to me in my dream half asleep, commotion took place outside and people left the room.

I opened my eyes sleepily and that was my cue to write this blog post. Maybe this might not seem applicable to you right now. But maybe one day you’ll need these quick tips and generally these are good characteristics to adopt!

1. Flexibility

Sometimes, things need to be done slightly differently. I can communicate in all forms except using mediums that require audio. If you prefer to communicate by phone calls, many Deaf people use relay service (using an interpreter via video or text based devices) and do not fear, it’s the law the conversation remains confidential. Also, do not speak to the interpreter as if I’m the third person (i.e. “Tell her this, ask if she thinks this, etc). The beauty of digital communications today is that it’s very easy to communicate real-time via texting, Skype, emails, etc.
Deaf people are not fond of dark, dark areas either. We are attracted to light so we can see other’s facial expressions, read body language and lips (though do not assume any Deaf person knows how to read lips). You won’t find me hosting client meetings in the back of some dimly lit ultra glam restaurant! Different accommodations for people with other disabilities might include locations with wheelchair ramps, lowering desktops, note takers, quiet spaces, breaks during meetings and more. The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a great resource if you’re interested in more!

2. Language Matters – Use People First

Please, please do not say “the disabled” or “handicapped person.” This is old and unfavorable. Use people first language. And definitely refrain from using this ghastly phrase…”suffering from ____” It’s very offensive. Generally, it should be “people with disabilities.” For example, “my client uses a ____” or “this man who is blind” instead of “the blind man.” If you place the disability first, you make that their main trait?! No, no. We should always speak AND write in people first language. In fact why even use labels until it’s relevant? Heck the word disability isn’t even a frequent in my vocabulary.  It’s just important you accept and respect the person. If you don’t know what to say, just ask.
Quick lesson though: In Deaf culture, it’s slightly different. It’s a cultural attribute to identify us as “the Deaf” (note: capital D) or Deaf girl, friend, client, and so on. And do not call us hearing impaired – it connotes negativity. There are people who’ve lost their hearing later in life who may, but that’s a completely different topic.

3. Co-create & Learn from each other 

Everybody can learn from each other. People with disabilities have just as much to offer you – maybe even more. We might have exceptional problem solving skills since we’ve been accustomed to different problems growing up. We’re also mad advocates for ourselves, so some of us know how to speak up when it’s necessary. We can also give fresh perspective on the usability and accessibility of a product, service or technology. I’m especially curious to see how the Deaf can use Google Glass down the road…
Be opened minded and you’d be surprised how beneficial it turns out to be!

4. Don’t assume they need help all the time

We will ask if we need help. Most of us, especially as we mature, become very good at being advocates for our needs. We will let you know what we need. Too much attention makes us uncomfortable and perceived not as incapable.  We appreciate the thoughtfulness, respect and assistance. Just remember we also are independent thinking beings with accommodations. If you aren’t sure then….

5. Don’t be afraid to ask questions!

It’s not like we’ve never been asked questions from many curious Georges. How else can people learn and remove imaginary barriers? Times are a changin’ though! When I was in highschool I was asked if I could drive or write normally. Sigh. But that was the first and last time I was asked that! Don’t underestimate the power and capabilities we do have.

I’d like to conclude with a piece of advice from my fellow Deaf brother: “Don’t turn your brain off.” This leaves yourself paralyzed in a unique situation when they really make us grow as individuals, bring excitement and create new relationships.

Note: Yes, this really was a dream. When we are relaxed and mostly asleep, our mind makes connections we may not when alert. Keep a notebook by your bed! 


Anne Reuss

Anne Reuss

Social Media + Content Marketing Specialist
A fitness-fueled digital marketer who wants you to live and market your business with grit. Addicted to adrenaline, pull-ups and social media, she's also Deaf, which has only taught her to listen abnormally well. She is a craft beer-loving social marketing manager for 360Connext, a customer experience consulting firm, and a freelance marketing consultant.
Anne Reuss
Anne Reuss

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5 Comments on "5 Tips for Interacting with People with Disabilities"

1 year 8 months ago

I disagree with person first language. I am an autistic person , not a person with autism. I cannot be and do not want to be separated from my neurology no matter how uncomfortable it makes you and do be afraid to ask questions because it's none of your business. I am not here for you to learn an important life lesson.

1 year 10 months ago

Appreciate you sharing this with us Anne.
We all like to believe that we're equalitarian and treat everyone with the same level of respect we accord others who are "like" us.
But the truth is different and when disrespect is shown, it's often due to ignorance.
The more we can learn about the world through other's experiences, the fuller our own lives will be.
Thank you.

1 year 10 months ago

Oh yes. Fuller and richer! Here's to knocking out more and more ignorance and you're so welcome!

1 year 10 months ago

I enjoyed your post. My dad is in a nursing home and it can be difficult sometimes. I try to get him to help himself as he can but I always ask him if he needs help before just doing it. I make sure he is engaged. On a side note, I always walk around talking with the other people who are just sitting in their wheelchairs. It's amazing how many smiles I can cultivate this way.

1 year 10 months ago

Love that. Everybody needs some help now and then – but it's the attitude that makes it a positive or negative situation (asking first, letting them ask first, vs assuming the person is weak).

That nursing home is lucky to have you!