Tips for communicating with people with disability

There are over 1.2 million Australians with a disability who find understanding or being understood by other people challenging.

Learning how to better communicate with people with disability is important for everyone— especially if you’re an employer or are thinking about a career as a support worker.

At Mambourin, our community is full of wonderful people with a range of communication abilities, so we asked our team for advice on what they’ve found helpful, both in day to day conversation, as well as in a professional or training environment. 

Here’s what they had to say.

Why it’s important to communicate effectively with people with disability

Not feeling heard or understood is frustrating for anybody. And that feeling doesn’t change just because someone has communication difficulties. Unfortunately, some people don’t feel confident talking to people with disability because they’re scared they’ll say the wrong thing—which can lead to feelings of being ignored, embarrassed and isolated.

Mambourin Business Solutions Manager, Brad Miller has worked with people with disabilities for many years, and shares:

“For myself, having worked with people with varying disabilities over the years, it is important to take the time to get to know them, discover their interests, be patient and most of all have a laugh with them.”

If you’re not sure how to get started, the following practical advice and tips will help you feel more confident communicating with people with disability.

1. Start with respect

Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. So if you’re meeting someone new who has a disability, take the time to get to know them before you make any assumptions on what they are—or are not— capable of. We might not get every interaction right 100% of the time, but when your starting point is an attitude of respect that seeks to see people for who they are, you can never really go wrong.

2. Listen carefully

If you’re having trouble understanding what the person is saying, don’t cut them off or talk over the top of them because you’re trying to make their point for them or to hurry the conversation along. Always take the time to listen to them carefully so that you can give a thoughtful and productive response. 

3. Be patient

Conversing with someone who has difficulty communicating may take a little longer than you’re used to—and that’s ok. It’s important to be relaxed and patient. Trying to rush someone won’t help them communicate any quicker, and will only lead to frustration for the both of you.

4. Be honest

If you haven’t understood what the person is saying, don’t pretend that you have. Be honest and ask them to repeat themselves or ask if they have a communication aid that could help. There’s no need to feel awkward, it’s a sign that you’re doing your best to understand correctly.

5. Don’t raise your voice

Not all people with disabilities are hard of hearing or require you to speak loudly or slowly. Start your conversation with the same volume and pace as you normally do, and adjust if the person indicates they need you to slow down or speak up. 

6. Direct your conversation to them 

Sometimes, visual cues such as eye contact, writing something down or pointing at something can help make communication more effective. That’s why it’s helpful to direct your conversation to the person with the disability rather than speaking to a group of people broadly. However, keep in mind that eye contact isn’t comfortable for everyone, especially some people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), so don’t try and force it if they’re not responding how you thought they would.

7. Check back in to make sure you’ve understood correctly

Rather than assuming that you’ve understood someone’s message, take a moment to check back in for confirmation. Simply ask them if you’ve got it right before moving on to your next talking point. Taking the time to pause every now and then allows for a chance to respond and ask the right questions that ensure everyone’s following along.

8. Ask before you help

Don’t try and be a hero. If you see someone with a disability who looks like they might need assistance, always ask them before you try to help them, and certainly never physically touch someone without their permission. Sometimes our best intentions aren’t always the correct way of doing things, so don’t be offended if your help is rejected.

9. Don’t direct your questions to a support worker

Just because someone has a support worker or carer with them doesn’t mean that they aren’t capable of communicating with you. If you have a question or want to start a conversation, always speak directly to the person rather than their carer. Even if the person has an interpreter, still direct your body language, questions and responses to the person you’re conversing with.

10. Speak to adults like adults

One of the frustrations that adults with a disability can face is not being treated appropriately for their age. While it’s good to use clear, simple language it’s not ok to speak down to someone. Always keep how you like to be spoken to as the benchmark for your communication with others.

11. Don’t be afraid to have a laugh and learn from your mistakes

No one is perfect or gets it right 100% of the time. If you find yourself unintentionally saying the wrong thing or are having miscommunication problems, don’t be afraid to have a laugh about it. People with disability have likely been through a similar scenario before and will probably laugh along with you—or at you! Learn from your mishap and know that you’ll do a little better next time.

A word from Kyle, Monica and Caitlin

Kyle, Monica and Caitlin are valued members of the Mambourin School Leaver Employment Support (SLES) program. Here’s what they have to say about what communication in the workplace means to them:

“We know that people look at us differently and think we aren’t capable or that we will struggle with employment; that couldn’t be further from the truth. We have some tips to share with you guys:

  • Don’t judge us or assume anything about our potential. You must demonstrate first and speak to us in simple terms. 
  • Give us positive reinforcement and speak to us nicely. 
  • Please don’t baby us. 
  • Talk to us as if we were any other employee without a disability. We will always give it a go; because being able to work means more to us than just money. It’s about proving the world wrong.”

Are you an employer or support worker? 

If you’re an employer ready to experience all the wonderful benefits that come from hiring someone with a disability, our traineeships and supported employment teams are full of eager candidates who are ready for open employment across a range of industries. 

Mambourin Business Solutions offers a unique opportunity for your business to partner with us on your next project. Whether it’s warehousing or gardening services, let us pair you with the right team to get the job done while offering meaningful employment for Australians with disability.

Interested in becoming a support worker? Head to our Careers page to find out more about our volunteering, student placement and career opportunities.

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