Woman In Red Sweater Wearing Black Framed Eyeglasses Sitting in a wheelchair

Communicating to people with disabilities

THIS ARTICLE HAS BEEN WRITTEN BY REGISTERED PSYCHOLOGIST, DEBRA WARREN, FROM UNE COUNSELLING AND PSYCHOLOGICAL SERVICES (UNE CAPS).

Hopefully, you will encounter people with disabilities in your lifetime and at UNE, because this means such individuals are involved in life.

Having lived experience of a disability I would love to share a few things with you. Whether you encounter someone with a disability in your classes, college, work, or general home life, there are a number of things to consider.

First and foremost, they are a person, just like you or I, with specific needs that may require consideration. But ultimately they are a person.  They will be as unique an individual as you are to the next person.  Try to focus on the person as a whole, not just the disability.

Remember, they will have a range of differences in their likes, dislikes, goals, aspirations, personality, and so on. You may like them, or not, just as you would with any person you interact with.

What one person finds comfortable talking about, another may not. Be guided by the person when interacting.  They may need to build up trust and rapport with you before they become honest about feelings or issues they experience, just as any person would.

Don’t be shy to ask what you are curious about or don’t know. Maybe not an interrogation “million questions” interview, but people are often happy to share their experiences or insight on any issue, and disability is just one.

Don’t assume they require your assistance. Feel free to ask them if they need anything, or invite them to ask you if they require help with something.  They are people who generally will know what they need if anything.

Don’t give them pity. Like for anyone, pity isn’t necessarily a helpful reaction.  It may be difficult to imagine life in that person’s shoes, and a natural reaction is to pity them, but that person is generally trying to make the most of their life and what they can do rather than focusing constantly on what they can’t do.  Being grateful for what you have may be helpful for you, but pitying the other person for what they do not have is not helpful for them.

Many frustrations are experienced by people with disabilities as they navigate their world. Everyone experiences frustrations; people with disabilities may find they experience another layer of frustration relating to their disability.  This may mean they don’t always react well to you, or the world around them.  Giving them leeway, but also being honest if it becomes an issue for you is important, rather than allowing resentment to build which impacts upon your relationship.  People with disabilities can behave badly, just like everyone else, and continually allowing this behavior to occur could create issues for you, and others.  Unless their disability specifically means they do not interact well, such individuals need to be subject to the same social norms and customs as others.  It is not helpful for them either, because they live in this world too, to be excused for poor behavior just because of having a disability.

Listen, and allow the person to share to the level of their comfort. However, do not feel you have to be available for this on a constant basis.  If you find your own frustrations building with the person, or their situation, talking to them and encouraging them to seek assistance where required may be helpful.  You are not expected to be their carer unless you are employed within that capacity, and knowing your own limitations is important to avoid resentment and damaging your relationship.

There may be disability-specific considerations you need to keep in mind. For example, avoiding floor clutter for people experiencing sight or mobility impairments, or communication strategies for those with sensory disabilities such as hearing loss.  There are far too many variations to list everything here. There is a wealth of learning disability-specific information, organisations, groups, and individual tips to discover via the internet.

 But, again, always remember you are free to ask the person themselves what they need from you.

There are a number of myths about disability. Unless someone has a hearing impairment or some comprehension issue, they will understand normal speech and tone just like anyone else.  It is not necessary to speak loudly or slowly.  Words such as “see” “hear” “run” etc are appropriate as they would be in normal speech.  They may become subjects of jokes and laughter, but it is not necessary to avoid the use of these words otherwise you risk becoming hypersensitive to everything that leaves your mouth and not having natural interactions.

Related to the individuality of people is the myth that what works for one person will work for another. While a disability may have similar considerations, each person is unique in how they navigate their disability.  For example, just because a person is blind or vision impaired, does not always mean they should have a guide dog or are better off with a dog than a cane.  So many considerations have to be taken into account in selecting assistive technology or supports.  Often people can have multiple disabilities requiring conflicting supports.  A dog can assist with many navigation issues, but can create other stressors in terms of managing distractions, interactions with others, care of the dog, financial considerations, or they just don’t like dogs!

Try to remember the person has a life other than their disability. Feel free to engage with them as you would anyone; asking about their hobbies, interests, goals.  Having a disability may have required a person to alter these interests, if their disability was acquired during their lifetime, but it does not mean they do not have such interests or goals.  Assuming that a person with a disability should join a support group or even want to interact with or date only people with their disability can be hurtful as their disability is only one aspect of themselves as a person.

Technological advances in the field of assistive devices is incredible and are making a number of previously inaccessible tasks more accessible. While technology can bring its own frustrations for everyone, you might be surprised by exactly what is available to assist.

If you’re looking for more information around communicating with people with disabilities please see;

  • The National Disability Insurance Scheme, it has been rolled out across Australia and provides financial support for people requiring assistance and training, technology, and other supports, to achieve their career and other life goals.
  • Centrelink can help you obtain relevant information and contacts for support agencies in the area you live.
  • Student Access and Inclusion UNE can assist students with disabilities or special needs (e.g. carer of someone with a disability) to obtain supports required to complete their studies.
  • The Australian Network on Disability also has useful information on disability etiquette but, again, be guided by the person themselves where possible.

If you want someone to chat to about healthy relationships, how to communicate assertively, or how to recognise and move away from toxic ones, give CAPS a call.

UNE students can access free counselling through UNE Student Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS). They are fully qualified and registered psychologists, offering on-campus appointments and phone/video chat sessions for online students. The service is confidential and free for UNE students.

You can contact them Monday- Friday, 9am-4 pm, on (02) 6773 2897.

For more urgent assistance, UNE offers After Hours Support on weekdays from 4.00pm to 9.00am AEST, weekends and public holidays. Phone 1300 661 927 or text 0488 884 169. Alternatively, you can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

If you have concerns about how stress and mental health are impacting your studies, contact Advocacy & Welfare on (02) 6773 3116 or at advocacy@une.edu.au.

You’re never alone at UNE!