Best Practices for Interacting with Persons with Disabilities

By Zack Janiel
Best Practices for Interacting with Persons with Disabilities

The article below details the best practices in interacting with persons with disabilities.

According to the World Health Organization, almost 15% of the world's population experience some form of disability. This number accounts for over one billion people. Despite this number, there are still many able-bodied people who are unsure about how to act towards persons with disabilities (PWDs). Though done without any intention to offend, some able-bodied people stare, use the wrong words to refer to PWDs, and even make insensitive jokes and remarks.

It is vital that able-bodied people learn how to interact with PWDs appropriately so that they will not inadvertently hurt or offend them. This is even more important among healthcare professionals, whose expertise and care are usually relied upon by PWDs.

Here are best practices recommended for healthcare professionals during interactions with all persons with disabilities, regardless of their type of disability.

General Best Practices

When providing assistance or service to a person with disabilities, don't forget the following general best practices in interacting with persons with disabilities:

  • Identify who you are by showing the person your name badge or by verbally introducing yourself.

  • When speaking to a person with disabilities, do not forget to talk to them directly. Do not engage with their interpreter or caregiver when you mean to speak with the person with a disability.

  • Maintain eye contact without staring.

  • Offer your help, but don't insist.

  • Ask how you can help and what to do. Do not make assumptions about what a PWD needs or how to assist them.

  • Acknowledge that persons with disabilities have diverse needs and prioritize the person's determination of their own needs.

  • Inform them about where accessible facilities are.

  • Only ask them questions about their disability when the information is necessary to understand or meet their needs.

  • Give the PWD who is not independently mobile a phone or pager device to call personnel if assistance is needed.


Best Practices for Different Types of Disabilities


Persons Who Are Blind or Partially Sighted

There are different degrees of blindness, and not all people with vision loss are completely blind. However, any visual impairment can restrict a person's ability to read or see hazards. Here are the best practices when interacting with persons with visual disabilities.

Best Practices:

  • Always ask if the PWD requires assistance. Do not assume that a person who is blind or partially sighted needs help. If assistance is requested, ask them how you can help them.

  • Do not offer wheelchairs to blind or partially sighted persons unless they also have a mobility impairment. Wheelchairs are not a substitute for guides.

  • Speak directly to the person. Identify yourself as their healthcare provider.

  • Confirm that the person has heard and understood what you have said.

  • Be clear and precise when giving instructions.

  • Inform the person when you are leaving and what they can expect to happen and when they can expect you to return. Doing so avoids potential stress associated with not receiving continuous assistance and not knowing when it will be resumed.

  • When helping a person with a service dog, do not interact with or talk to the dog. Do not pet or feed the service dog since the dog is working and should not be distracted.

  • Ask if the person needs assistance in completing forms.


Persons Who Have a Communication Disability

A communication disability is usually a speech or language impairment. This type of disability usually presents with difficulty with articulation, pronunciation, and voice emission, or difficulty in choosing words, forming sentences, or understanding words. Some persons may be unable to speak. Instead, they communicate through visual guides or by typing their message on their phone. Most persons who have speech and language impairments do not have hearing loss or cognitive impairments.

Below are the best practices in dealing with persons with communication disabilities.

Best practices:

  • Allow the person to speak without interrupting them. Do not finish their sentences for them.

  • Watch out for the person's use of body language or communication devices to help them express themselves.

  • When a person is having difficulty expressing themselves, summarize what you have understood and ask to confirm your understanding of their needs. This way, the person can just add to your summary to complete their thought, rather than repeating everything.

  • Confirm your understanding of the person's message by asking them to repeat themselves.

  • Avoid speaking loudly, as this does not help persons with communication disabilities express themselves.

  • Consider using communication devices, such as pen, paper, computer, or cellphones, but ask first if this is acceptable.

  • Ask questions that only need short answers or a nod of the head. Offer a choice of answers to your questions to obtain a yes or no. You should also ask the person first if this is acceptable.


Persons Who Are Deaf, Deafened, and Hard of Hearing

"Deaf" refers to a group of people who share a language (particularly American Sign Language (ASL)) and a culture that encompasses language, values, traditions, norms, and identity. The term "deafened" is used to describe a person who has lost their hearing after learning speech. "Hard of hearing" is a term used to describe a person who cannot hear well. The Deaf community uses different communication techniques, such as lip and speech reading. They can also use an assistive learning system.

Below are the best practices in dealing with persons with hearing disabilities.

Best Practices:

  • Get the person's attention before you speak. If the person is near you, you can tap them on the shoulder. If they're far away from you, you can wave at them.

  • Ask them about their preferred method of communication and whether it is helpful to communicate with them by using a pen and paper or a computer, tablet, or cellphone.

  • Speak directly to the person and not their interpreter.

  • Maintain eye contact with the person.

  • Remove visual distractions such as bright lights and environmental noise,

  • Rephrase your words or offer to explain things in writing if you think your message needs further clarification.

  • Use facial expressions and gestures to help project what you are saying.

  • Do not assume that the person is wearing hearing aids.


Persons Who Have an Intellectual, Cognitive, or Learning Disability

Persons with intellectual disabilities have difficulties performing daily activities and may have problems communicating, problem-solving, reasoning, decision-making, and learning. Persons with cognitive disabilities have difficulty concentrating and retaining information. Persons with learning disabilities have a different learning style than most people, and may have difficulty in reading, writing, math, or comprehension.

Persons who have intellectual, cognitive, and learning disabilities are considered to have hidden, non-visible disabilities since these impairments aren't very obvious. Be prepared to offer assistance when requested.

Below are other best practices in dealing with persons with intellectual, cognitive, or learning disabilities.

Best Practices:

  • Offer assistance or more time to complete forms, understand instructions or make decisions. Wait for the person to accept your offer of help.

  • Be ready to rephrase your instructions or explain more than once to make sure the person understands you.

  • Listen carefully when the person speaks.

  • Speak slowly and give instructions in clear and short sentences.

  • Instructions should be broken into small parts.

  • Periodically confirm if the person has understood your message.

  • Ask the person if they would like to have key information in writing.

  • Consider moving to a more quiet or private location to avoid distractions.

Need more tips in communicating with people with cognitive impairment? Check out our course on Communication with Cognitively Impaired Individuals, a read-at-your-own-pace, 1-hour credit for all healthcare professionals.

Persons Who Have a Mobility Impairment

There are many types of mobility impairments and aids that are used to assist with mobility. Persons with lower body impairments typically use canes, walkers, and wheelchairs. Persons who have upper-body impairments that limit the use of upper extremities can also use power wheelchairs to aid mobility.

Below are the best practices in dealing with persons with mobility impairments.

Best Practices:

  • When talking with a person with a mobility impairment, put yourself at their eye level. If possible, sit next to them when conversing with them. Make sure that there are no obstructions between you and the person when you are talking to them.

  • Do not touch a person's mobility aid without their permission.

  • Do not assume that a person using a wheelchair wants to be pushed. You should always ask first.

  • Respect the person's dignity and autonomy when they allow you to push their wheelchair. Ask them where they want to go and maintain appropriate speed when pushing the wheelchair. Do not leave them alone for extended periods of time without assistance or explanations.

  • Remove any obstructions that may block their path of travel. You may open doors for them when they appear to have a difficult time opening doors.

  • Offer the person a clipboard as a writing surface when they are writing forms.

  • If the person will be standing for a long time, offer them a chair.


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