This resource is part of our Disability Essentials range. You can find the other free resources that are included in this range.
We all have preferred ways that we like to communicate. For some people, having a disability may affect the way that they communicate and may mean they have particular communication needs. Some communication needs may be obvious, others less so, and it may take some time before you become aware of them.
In this resource we look at the ways in which you can adapt your own communication style to meet the needs of a particular customer. Words and phrases which are helpful to use and those which have negative associations and should be avoided.
Keep in mind that tone and body language are often as important as the words themselves, so getting those right is a good place to start.
- Ask someone how you can best meet their needs. Never assume.
- Use positive body language such as unfolded arms, facing people directly.
- Smile. This will help to put people at ease and make customers more likely to ask for help if they need it.
- Speak in a positive and friendly tone.
- Adapt your communication to meet the person’s needs.
- Address a disabled person in the same way as you would address other customers or clients.
- Look at the person when you are speaking to them, so they can see your face. Position yourself at eye level, if possible. This may mean coming around to the front of a counter.
- Be patient and listen attentively.
- Address your questions to an interpreter, Personal Assistant, or support worker but to the person themselves.
- Use jargon.
- Use language which could cause offence.
- Interrupt or finish someone’s sentence.
- Ask personal questions about the person’s disability. The person may not wish to share this information with you or recognise themselves as having a disability.
- Be concerned if the person doesn’t want to look at you or won’t make eye contact.
Recording communication preferences
If a customer provides you with information about communication preferences, ask if you can make a note of these so that you are better able to meet their needs in the future. Note that as this is personal data, it is important to make sure you are recording this information in the correct way.
Check policies within your organisation or check the latest guidance from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).
Words or phrases to avoid
Think about the language you are using (read more about Inclusive language: the dos and don’ts). Some words or phrases can reinforce stereotypes and cause offence and should be avoided.
- Negative terms such as ‘victim’, ‘cripple’, ‘deformed’, or ‘handicap’.
- Language which disempowers disabled people and implies vulnerability, frailty or dependency.
- Collective nouns such as ‘the disabled’ or ‘the blind’. They emphasise the impairment and suggest that people are part of a uniform group, rather than individuals with their own needs and preferences.
- Words which suggest that someone is ‘confined’ by a wheelchair or ‘bound’ by another mobility or assistive aid.
Words or phrases to use
- Use ‘disabled person’, or ‘person with a disability’ or ‘someone with a condition’.
- Use ‘has’ rather than ‘is’ when speaking about someone else’s condition or impairment. So ‘Steve has dyslexia’. (Individuals may have their own preferences, so if someone prefers to be described as someone who ‘is’ rather than someone who ‘has’, respect their preferences.)
- Use ‘disabled people’ or ‘people who have sight loss’ (depending on impairment or condition), when speaking about more than one person.
- Wheelchairs enhance independence, so just say ‘wheelchair user’.
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