Disability Awareness Handout F
General Suggestions for
Interacting and Communicating with
Individuals with Specific Disabilities
People Who Use Wheelchairs
People who use wheelchairs can hold physically demanding jobs. They need not be confined to desk jobs. People who use wheelchairs can be very independent, not necessarily relying on others for assistance in daily activities. They may or may not do things differently or more slowly than others. There is no need to be overprotective of people who use wheelchairs.
- Refer to this person as a "wheelchair user" rather than a "wheelchair victim" or "wheelchair bound."
- Make sure all meetings and interviews are conducted at wheelchair accessible locations.
- Don't automatically hold onto the person's wheelchair. It is part of their body space.
- Assistance may be offered, but don't insist. If the person needs help, they will accept the offer and explain exactly what will be helpful.
- Don't move a wheelchair or crutches out of reach of the person who uses them. Never start to push a person's wheelchair without first getting permission.
- Speak directly to the person in the chair, not to someone nearby. For longer conversations, pull up a chair and sit at eye level with the person.
- Don't be sensitive about using words like "running" or "walking."
- Avoid classifying people who use wheelchairs as "sick." Wheelchairs are used for a variety of disabilities.
- Don't be surprised if the person transfers from a wheelchair to a piece of furniture or gets out of the wheelchair to move about. Some people who use wheelchairs can walk, but they choose to use a wheelchair because of stamina or balance issues.
- After the initial greeting, sit down so that a person who uses a wheelchair won't have to crane his/her neck to look up and make eye contact.
People Who Are Blind or Vision Impaired
A person's visual acuity may change under different light conditions. Do not confuse vision impairments or 'legal blindness' with total blindness. Many people who are considered to be legally blind have residual (or remaining) sight. In fact, many people who are legally blind walk without the use of a cane or dog guide and can read printed text with some accommodations (such as large print or a magnifier).
- Do not automatically guide someone without asking them first. If they accept your assistance, offer the person the back of your arm or elbow and let the person follow the motion of your body. Walk at a normal pace. Guide their hand or arm to the back of a chair. When guiding, slow before a step, barrier or turn and describe the reason for the slowing. Avoid pointing or using abstract visual cues, i.e. over there, that one, up ahead, etc.
- Speak directly to the individual who is blind or vision impaired. Do not shout. When you leave the room, say so.
- Introduce other people in the room or have them introduce themselves. This will assist the person in orienting themselves to the room and its occupants. When conversing with a group of people, identify the person to whom you are speaking. If a person who is blind or visually impaired does not respond, it may be because he or she thinks you are talking to someone else.
- Don't avoid using words like "look" and "see." There are no reasonable substitutes. For example: When giving directions, do not use references a person cannot see "over there" is not good way of describing a location. When using directional words, use them with the orientation of the person who is blind. Remember when you are facing someone, your left is that person's right.
- Do not play with a dog guide while it is "on duty." It is up to the person using the dog guide to decide if play is appropriate, so be sure to ask before touching the animal. You do not want to distract the animal from it's job.
- When guiding a person into a new or strange surrounding, describe special features or physical characteristics of the area. When going into a room, describe where furniture is, where the door is, and where the person is in relation to these objects.
- For people with vision impairments, provide a well lit area for the interview and avoid sharp contrasts of light and dark areas. A person's visual acuity may change under differing light conditions.
- When handing the individual written materials, be prepared to read the information to the person, or ask if the person would like a reader. Offer assistance in filling out forms, most people with visual impairments can fill out forms and sign their names if the appropriate spaces are indicated to them.
- When speaking to a person with impaired vision, position yourself so that the sun or any other bright lights are in front of you. Your face will be illuminated and, at the same time, glare or blinding light in the eyes of the other person will be eliminated.
- Try not to be disconcerted if an individual with an obvious vision impairment does not make eye contact, and still continue to talk directly to the person.
People Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing
The goal of all communication is to obtain appropriate information from the person. Sometimes it is necessary to be versatile in finding an effective communication method with people who are deaf or hard of hearing. The main objective, though, is to communicate effectively.
- When speaking with someone who is deaf or hard of hearing, face the person directly. Do not position yourself so that you are directly in front of a harsh light or window. Your face will be difficult to see as it is silhouetted in bright light.
- Not all people who are deaf can lipread. Actually, only about 25% of what we say is visible on the lips. None-the-less, some people can lipread quite well.
- When speaking to someone who is deaf of hard of hearing, use meaningful facial expressions and gestures to emphasize your intent and attitude. This substitutes for tone of voice. This is important even in the presence of a sign language interpreter or oral interpreter. Be sure not to use exaggerated mouth movements or wild gestures.
- Do not change the subject without warning.
- Not all people who are deaf know sign language. Do not assume that everyone needs an interpreter.
- If using a sign language or oral interpreter, speak directly to the person who is deaf, not the interpreter. i.e. "When will you have the report ready?" instead of looking at the interpreter and saying "Ask him when he will have the report ready." The only reason for the presence of an interpreter is because participants in the communication process speak different languages. Do not try to involve the interpreter in the conversation.
- Keep your hands from covering your mouth when talking. Remove objects from your mouth such as cigarettes, pipes, gum, or food.
- Do not shout when speaking to the person. Use a normal tone of voice, and do not restrict yourself to monosyllabic words.
- If you cannot understand the person, do not be afraid to ask them to repeat. When this does not work, try paper and pencil.
- When working or meeting in a group, ask the deaf or hard of hearing individual for suggestions that work well for them (sign language interpreter, notetaker, seating arrangement, lighting, etc.) Have each person raise his or her hand before speaking so that those depending on lipreading will know where to look.
- When a person who is deaf or hard of hearing chooses to have an interpreter voice for them, remember to respond directly to that person and not the interpreter.
- Just because someone uses a sign language interpreter during the interview does not mean that they will require an interpreter at all times to do their work.
- If a sign language interpreter is not present, ask the individual how he or she would prefer to communicate (paper and pencil, lip reading, computer terminal, etc.).
- To get the attention of a person who is hearing impaired or deaf, vocalize a greeting, and if necessary, discreetly wave your hand or gently tap the person's shoulder.
- Keep in mind that the ability to understand spoken English is not related to the person's intelligence.
- Remember that the grammar of sign language is not directly related to English. Again, the lack of knowledge of English grammar is not a sign of lack of intelligence.
Individuals with Learning Disabilities
- Since a learning disability is an invisible disability, it is rarely noticed without disclosure from the individual. Since learning disabilities vary so much from person to person, be sure to ask how the learning disability affects that person.
- People with learning disabilities have average or above average intelligence. A possible indication that a person has a learning disability is when he or she does not perform in a way that is consistent with his or her intelligence.
- Often, a person with a learning disability is very creative and develops unique and innovative methods of analyzing situations and issues.
- Relate to a person on the basis of his or her strengths rather than weaknesses. Assign work that utilizes those strengths.
- People who have a perceptual learning disability have difficulty receiving information through their senses. This includes auditory, tactile, and visual perception. Using multiple senses, such as reading and listening to what is being read out loud is often helpful.
- People with academic-type learning disabilities may have trouble reading or writing and prefer to tape record information or directions. Talking devices, such as computers and calculators are also useful. This includes dyscalculia, dysgraphia, and dyslexia.
- People with auditory learning disabilities may request that information be clarified or repeated. Written instructions or directions are helpful. Using short sentences, clear enunciation, demonstrations or both may be useful. People with this type of disability often need to work in quiet surroundings.
- People with motor learning disabilities experience difficulty when their muscles react differently than expected to brain signals, resulting in a lack of coordination. Repetition helps to lessen coordination problems.
- People with perceptual learning disabilities have difficulty with accuracy. They may reverse numbers and place words or numbers in the wrong spaces on a form. Therefore, people with this type of disability may need their material checked for grammar and word or number reversal.
- People sensitive to tactile stimulation may not like being touched by others, including shaking hands. They also may have trouble judging the amount of pressure they exert in such actions as holding objects.
- People with visual perceptual learning disabilities may have difficulty in finding objects; or they may lose them frequently. Sometimes people with this disability might color code files, etc., for easy identification.
- People with learning disabilities must discover their own personal coping mechanisms to accommodate their specific learning disability. But be prepared to provide support wherever possible.
- Be thorough, direct, and specific in communication.
- If inappropriate behavior is observed or reported, it is important to tell the person what behavior is inappropriate and what changes need to be made.
Individuals with Physical Disabilities
- When walking with a person who walks slower than you, walk with the person, not in front of them.
- Provide the person with clear directions to a meeting site using the shortest and easiest route.
- If a person falls or is off balance, simply offer assistance. A natural tendency is to overreact, but you need not be overprotective of a person with a mobility impairment.
- Be aware of obstacles, including floor or ground surfaces, that might be present in a room or location that would inhibit the movements of people.
- Be prepared to 'shake' what is offered to you. This could be a disabled right hand, a prosthetic, a stump, or even their left hand.
Individuals with Epilepsy
If the person brings the condition to your attention, you may ask whether the condition might have an impact on their work and if there are any necessary accommodations. If applicants mention seizures, interviewers may ask whether seizures are under control, and if not, what people in the office need to know in the event of a seizure. This information, however, usually isn't needed until after a person with epilepsy is hired. Do not be over solicitous.
People Who Are Mentally Restored
Mental illness can be successfully treated, and people who are mentally restored have skills, experiences, and abilities that are not affected by their illness. For the purposes of employment, a person who is mentally restored is one who has experienced a mental or emotional difficulty that currently is under control to the extent that the individual is able to function effectively and satisfactorily in a specific job. The qualifications of people who are mentally restored must be given the same consideration as those of other applicants.
- Talk to the individual as you would to anyone else.
- Through your demeanor, show that you trust the individual's ability to control their behavior.
Individuals with Cerebral Palsy (or other muscular or neurological limitations)
Cerebral palsy may affect motor ability and/or speech. It does not affect intelligence. Unless the person is very severely disabled, or has the involvement of other disabilities, no accommodation may be needed for the interview itself. On the job pathways need to be kept clear, and the person may require their desktop to be reorganized so items can be easily accessed. Depending on the needs of the individual, some minor adjustments (hardware &/or software) may be necessary.
Cerebral palsy may affect an individual's motor ability and/or speech, but it does not affect intelligence.
- The severity and functional effects of the disability vary from person to person. Some involuntary or halting movement or limitation of movement in one or more than one appendage may be observed, as well as some lisping, indistinct speech or flatness of tone due to lack of fine motor control and lips.
- If the applicantıs speech is difficult to understand, do not hesitate to ask the applicant to repeat him or her self. It benefits no one to pretend you understand when you do not.
- Some people who have severe cerebral palsy communicate more effectively by writing, typing, or using communication boards or electronic devices. If this is the case, the person with a disability may not mind having his or her sentences finished by you in order to save time and energy. It is very important, though, to confirm this before doing it.
- Repeat the information provided by the person so that he or she can tell you whether you understood what was said and meant.
Individuals with Mental Retardation
Many people with mental retardation (also called Developmentally Delayed Learners (DDL)) have average or superior abilities in some respects. While it is true that some people who are DDL may not be able to think, figure, or remember as well as other people, it is important to remember that they are proficient in some ways and deficient in others.
People who have mental retardation usually want to be independent and responsible for their own support. One of the largest obstacles to equal employment opportunity for these individuals is persistent lack of employer confidence in, and lowered expectations of, their capabilities.
- Mental retardation should not be confused with mental illness or behavioral and emotional problems. The effect of the disability can be lessened, and skills and abilities increased, through rehabilitation, special education, and experience on the job.
- Talk to the individual as you would to anyone else, but be very specific. Break down tasks into component parts.
- Occasionally ask the person if they are understanding you. Have them relay the meaning of your words and ideas for confirmation.
- Use the term "little person" or "small stature" avoid the terms dwarf or midget.
- Do not treat the person as a child. Size does not reflect age.
- Do not be afraid to ask if the person needs assistance in reaching something.
- Sit or bend to talk with the person; this eliminates the need for them to always look up.
Individuals with Tourette Syndrome:
Tourette Syndrome affects a person's ability to control behavior. This syndrome produces a variety of symptoms such as motor tics, production of noises, or vocalization of socially unacceptable words. If you encounter someone with these symptoms, the best thing to do is to ignore the movements or outbursts.
Adapted from: The President's Committee on Employment of People With Disabilities and People With and Without Disabilities: Interacting and Communicating: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
Disability Awareness - Handout A