Communication Tips

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Communication and Interaction Tips


The following guidelines will help promote positive communication and enhance interaction in the work environment.


Appropriate References and Terminology

General Communication and Interaction Tips

Communication and Interaction Tips - Disability Specific

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Appropriate References and Terminology


When referring to a person with a disability, always put the person before the disability.  In the following examples, note how the person is referred to first before the disability.


A person with a...    

physical disability
visual impairment
hearing impairment
speech impairment
seizure disorder
developmental disability
psychiatric disability                                             

A person who uses...

a wheelchair
a cane
a guide dog
an interpreter
a reader
an assistive device

A person who is...

hard of hearing
visually impaired
developmentally disabled

A person who has...  A person with...

muscular dystrophy
multiple sclerosis
cerebral palsy
epilepsy / a seizure disorder
a spinal cord injury
a speech impairment
a specific learning disability
attention deficit disorder
a psychiatric disability
a mobility impairment

People with...


A person with...

a disability



How individuals with disabling conditions are portrayed can greatly affect their feelings of self-worth, and the public's perception of their worth.  To enhance the dignity and perceptions of people with disabilities, the following choice of words are preferred:


Disability  (not handicap)
Visually impaired / vision impaired
Hard of Hearing (although hearing impaired is commonly used, hard of 
is preferred among people with a hearing loss)
Developmental disability
Mental Retardation  (not retard, retarded)
Psychiatric disability / mental illness
Epilepsy / seizure disorder  (not epileptic)
Specific learning disability (emphasizes the disability only affects certain 
                                              learning processes, not all learning processes)
Unable to speak  (not dumb or mute)
Congenital disability  (not birth defect)
Down's syndrome  (not Mongoloid)
Head injury / traumatic brain or head injury / acquired brain or head injury
Speech impairment 
Physical impairment  
Mobility impairment   (not cripple)
Spasticity - to describe the condition  (not spastic - to describe the person)
Nondisabled  (not able-bodied)

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General Communication and Interaction Tips

The following tips will help promote positive working interactions:


  1. Treat the person as you would any other adult.

  2. Just be yourself.  Use a normal tone of voice and body gestures.

  3. If introduced to a person with limited hand use, it's fine to shake the left hand or
    touch the person on the shoulder or arm when greeting.

  4. Most people with disabilities try to be as independent as possible and will only
    ask for assistance if they need it.  However, if you sense a person is having
    difficulty or could use help, it's fine to offer assistance.  If your offer for assistance
    is accepted, don't be embarrassed or afraid to admit that you don't know what to
    do or how to help.  Simply ask the person for instructions, and he or she will
    gladly instruct you.

  5. Know where accessible restrooms, drinking fountains, parking spaces, and 
    telephones are located for providing directions.

  6. Know the accessible layout of your building -- accessible entrances, meeting
    room locations, and routes for accessing -- for providing directions.

  7. Speak and ask questions directly to the person with a disability, not to another
    person who may be accompanying the person.

  8. Feel free to use common expressions like -- "I see" or "See you later" to a person
    with a vision impairment;  "I hear what you're saying" to a person with a hearing
    loss;  "Let's walk over to the cafeteria" to a person using a wheelchair, and so on.
    Just speak naturally and be yourself.

  9. If a person has a service dog, don't pet or otherwise distract the dog when the dog
    is working (when the harness, jacket, or special leash is on).  If the person offers to
    let you pet the dog, that's fine.

  10. Check to be sure the physical layout of the area is accessible and free of obstacles,
    like coat racks, trash bins, brochure stands, and other items blocking pathways.

  11. Be sure aisles are wide enough to allow access for a person who uses a wheelchair.

  12. If a person has difficulty speaking, be patient and refrain from completing sentences
    for the person.  If you're having difficulty understanding what the person is saying, 
    do let the person know.  "I didn't understand that last part.  Could you repeat?"
    "I'm having difficulty understanding.  Perhaps you could write it down for me."
    "I'm not sure if I understood correctly.  Did you say....?"

  13. If a conversation will last more than a few minutes, and the person needs to sit or
    uses a wheelchair, it's good to sit down or kneel to communicate at eye level.

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Communication Tips - Disability Specific


Physical Disabilities

Hearing Impairments

Vision Impairments

Attention Deficit Disorder

Speech Impairments

Specific Learning Disabilities

Mental Disorders

Tourette Syndrome

Mental Retardation or Developmental Disabilities

Epilepsy / Seizure Disorders - What to do if a seizure occurs


Acquired Brain Injuries

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Physical Disabilities

Physical disabilities include a wide range of disabilities.  Many of these disabilities are visible because devices, such as a cane or wheelchair, are often used.  However, physical disabilities also include a wide variety of invisible disabilities as well, such as a heart condition, arthritis, and multiple sclerosis.


  1. When talking with a person who uses a wheelchair, try to sit or kneel whenever
    possible to communicate at eye level.

  2. As the wheelchair is part of the person's personal space, avoid leaning or holding
    onto the wheelchair.

  3. A pat on the shoulder or arm to greet the person or show support is great.  But
    never pat the person on the head.

  4. If the person uses a cane or crutches, the person will want to keep them within
    reach.  If, however, they are in the way or pose a tripping danger, it's fine to ask
    the person to move them under the chair or desk.

  5. As the person may have decreased physical stamina and endurance, locating a 
    place to sit and converse will be appreciated.

  6. Mobility and accessibility are likely the person's greatest challenges - distances,
    stairs, curbs, and heavy doors.  Whenever possible, try to schedule meetings at
    accessible locations that are conveniently located so the person doesn't have to
    take a long and indirect route to get there.

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Hearing Impairments

Hearing impairments range from a slight to severe or total loss.  Communication methods will vary.  The person may rely on amplification and lip reading, sign language, or a combination of these methods.


  1. If the person relies on sign language and an interpreter isn't available, communicate
    by paper and pencil.

  2. If the person can communicate without an interpreter, face the person and speak 
    slowly and clearly.  Avoid exaggerating mouth movements and enunciating with 
    force and tension.  Facial expressions and gestures are good to use to help convey
    your message.

  3. To get the person's attention, simply tap the person on the shoulder.  In a large 
    group setting, flicking the light switch off and on works great!

  4. Try to avoid standing in front of a strong light source, like a window.  The glare 
    makes reading lips very difficult.

  5. If the person has difficulty understanding something you've said, try repeating the 
    phrase.  If your message is still not understood, try to rephrase your thought rather 
    than repeating the same words.  If needed, jot the phrase down on paper.

  6. Be aware moustaches make lip reading difficult - and hands or anything placed
    in front of your mouth pose a problem.

Communicating through an interpreter:

  1. Speak directly to the person, not the interpreter.  Maintain eye contact with the
    person even if he or she is looking at the interpreter.

  2. Direct questions to the person, not the interpreter.  "Do you know the meeting
    location?"  instead of  "Could you ask her if she knows the meeting location?"

  3. The interpreter should stand or sit near the speaker, and the person should have
    a clear view.

  4. As the interpreter will be a few words behind the speaker, allow additional time
    for questions before continuing.

  5. As the person watching the interpreter can't take notes, it's helpful to provide
    written instructions, directions, or notes if needed.  In a meeting, a volunteer
    note-taker (co-worker) will be extremely helpful.

  6. Be aware the interpreter facilitates communication only.  The interpreter doesn't
    participate in the conversation or activity.

To contact the person by phone:

If you don't have access to a TTY/TDD, you may use the free relay service by 
dialing  7-1-1  (nationwide).  An operator will contact the person via a 
TTY/TDD and will relay your conversation.

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Vision Impairments

Visual impairments are divided into two general categories:  blindness and low vision.  
The following tips will vary depending on the person's level of vision.


  1. When you approach the person, identify yourself and others with you by name.
    The person may not always recognize you by your voice.

  2. If you offer to guide the person, let the person take the back of your arm just
    above the elbow.  Walk in a relaxed manner.  Let the person know if you are
    approaching a step or other obstacle.

  3. If the person is a new employee, it will help to orient the person to the area by
    explaining where things are located.  If things are moved, it will help to let the
    person know.

  4. When giving directions, use specific directional words, such as "straight ahead"
    or "forward."  Refer to positions in terms of clock hands:  "The chair is at your
    2 o'clock."  Avoid vague terms such as "over there."

  5. Use verbal cues to let the person know when you arrive or leave the area.

  6. When offering a seat, give a verbal cue as to the seat's location.  "The chair is
    one step to your right"  or  "The chair is two steps behind you."

  7. Be aware the person may need to use a tape recorder or braille device to note

  8. Be aware the person may be able to read material provided in large print, or 
    read enlarged print on a computer screen.

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Attention Deficit Disorder

Attention Deficit Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a disorder in which a person shows a high degree of impulsivity, inattention, and hyperactivity.


  1. Communicate in direct, clear terms.

  2. If the person is a new employee, it helps to clearly state expectations, policies,
    procedures, and rules in the work area.  Be specific and matter of fact.

  3. Apply structure whenever possible in communication and work tasks.

  4. Be specific.

  5. Be consistent.

  6. The person may communicate and work best in an area with limited

  7. It often helps if the person can take several short breaks instead of one 
    long break.

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Speech Impairments

Speech impairments range from slight to severe, and the impairment may be related to another disability, such as cerebral palsy, a brain injury, or hearing loss.


  1. If the person's speech is difficult to understand, politely ask the person to repeat
    or rephrase.

  2. Be patient.  Try not to interrupt or complete sentence for the person.

  3. Try not to hurry the person.  This may make the impairment worse.

  4. You may find it helpful to ask questions that require short answers or a nod
    of the head.

  5. If you're not understanding what the person is saying, let the person know.
    If you continue to have difficulty, offer pen and paper if the person is physically
    able to write.  Asking the person to rephrase the thought or spell out a 
    particular word may help.

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Specific Learning Disabilities

A learning disability is a disorder which affects the manner in which individuals with normal or above average intelligence take in, retain, and express information.  An individual may have a deficit in one or more of the following areas:   oral expression, listening comprehension, written expression, reading skills, reading comprehension, mathematical calculation, organization, or problem solving.  A learning disability is presumably due to central nervous system dysfunction.


  1. When giving instructions or directions, break large tasks into small sequential

  2. It may help to write instructions down.

  3. It may help to read aloud information that is in print.

  4. Demonstrating how to do a task may be better than verbally explaining it alone.

  5. Give frequent and positive feedback.

  6. Ask questions to insure understanding.  Allow adequate time for a response.

  7. Notify the person of changes well in advance whenever possible.

  8. Structure work tasks in clearly defined steps.

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Mental Disorders

Mental disorders refer to a group of behavioral or psychological conditions.  These disorders may be categorized by anxiety, mood swings, depression, or loss of contact with reality.  Many mental disorders can be effectively managed with medications and treatment.


  1. Speak in a calm and relaxed manner.

  2. If the person makes an occasional odd statement, don't disagree.  It's better to
    just agree or let the comment pass.  Simply help redirect the person to the topic
    or task.

  3. It may help to write information down for the person to refer to when needed.

  4. It may be helpful to repeat or summarize information.

  5. It may help to explain things that seem obvious to you.

  6. Minimizing stress as much as possible is helpful.  The person may have less
    capacity and ability to absorb and manage stress.

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Tourette Syndrome

Tourette Syndrome is a neurological disorder with two basic features:   involuntary motor tics and involuntary vocal tics.  The symptoms come and go, vary in intensity, and change over time.  A high percentage of individuals with Tourette syndrome have difficulty with attention and impulse control (Attention Deficit Disorder) and controlling urges (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder).  A high percentage also have some form of learning disability.


  1. If the person displays motor or vocal tics, do not react with anger and annoyance.
    Remember the person cannot control the tics and behaviors.

  2. Be patient.

  3. Be friendly.

  4. It may help to allow several short breaks instead of one long break.

  5. It may help to allow the person to briefly go to a private place where the person
    is comfortable to relax and release tics.  Short time-outs are very helpful.

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Mental Retardation or Developmental Disabilities

People with mental retardation or a developmental disability develop at a below average rate and experience challenges in learning and social adjustment.


  1. It may help to keep verbal descriptions short and direct.  Some individuals may
    only be able to remember 1 or 2 things at a time.

  2. It may help to ask the person to repeat your directions to be sure the person

  3. It often helps to ask the person how he or she learns best and what helps keep
    the person on track.

  4. Providing lists or checklists of job duties often helps the person work

  5. It helps to give instructions and directions in small, sequential steps.

  6. It helps to demonstrate what needs to be done, then letting the person
    demonstrate and practice with corrections.

  7. Routine and consistent job duties are usually easier for the person to master.
    Add duties as tasks are learned.

  8. It helps the person to see the importance of the work they do.  "What would
    happen if...?"

  9. Stress success as much as possible.'

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Epilepsy or Seizure Disorder

A seizure occurs when there is a sudden electrical discharge in the brain.  Each individual is uniquely affected.  A seizure can result in a relatively slight reaction, such as a short lapse in attention, to a more severe reaction.  Epilepsy is generally controlled by medication and, as a result, a seizure episode in the workplace is rare.  However, should a person have a seizure, the following information is important.

What You Can Do if a Person Has a Seizure:

  1. Keep calm.  Ease the person to the floor and open the collar of the shirt.
    Be aware you cannot stop the seizure.  Let the seizure run its course and
    don't try to revive the person.

  2. Remove hard, sharp or hot objects which may injure the person, but you
    should not interfere with the person's movements.

  3. Do not force anything between the person's teeth.

  4. Turn the person's head to one side for release of saliva.  Place something
    soft under the person's head.

  5. Make sure that breathing is unobstructed but do not be concerned if 
    breathing is irregular.

  6. The person may wish to rest after regaining consciousness.

  7. If the seizure lasts beyond a few minutes, or if the person seems to pass
    from one seizure to another without regaining consciousness, call 9-1-1
    for assistance.

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Autism is a neurological disorder that affects the functioning of the brain.  Although the effects of the disorder vary tremendously, many people with autism have deficits in processing information, communication, and social skills.


  1. Be aware the person may have difficulty in social settings and with communication.  
    The person may have difficulty making eye contact and interpreting nonverbal cues, 
    such as facial expression, gestures, and tone of voice.

  2. Be aware the person may be sensitive to touch, sounds, light, or color.

  3. Be aware the person may tend to focus on particular objects.

  4. Be aware the person may quietly talk to himself or herself frequently during the day.

  5. As the disorder varies tremendously with each individual, it helps to ask the
    person for advice and guidance in setting up his or her work environment.  Things
    to consider would be the amount of noise, light, and other distractions in the
    person's work area.

  6. Be aware the person may be socially awkward and may appear to be eccentric
    or different.

  7. Be aware acceptance of a person with autism, without judgment, is very

  8. As the person may have difficulty interpreting nonverbal cues, direct and clear
    communication is important.  Be direct and specific.

  9. It may help the person to have large tasks broken down into smaller sequential

  10. Lists, checklists, and written information to refer to may be helpful.

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Acquired Brain Injuries

Acquired brain injuries can be caused by direct injury, hemorrhage, or swelling.  The injury may affect several areas of the brain.


  1. If the person's memory is impaired, providing written information and instructions
    is very helpful.

  2. Providing clear and consistent directions is helpful.

  3. Step-by-step memory tasks, such as directions, may be more easily understood
    and remembered by breaking tasks into smaller sequential steps.

  4. Demonstrating how to do a task may be better than verbally explaining it alone.

  5. Be aware the person may exhibit a slow or delayed response time in both
    intellectual and physical tasks.

  6. Be aware the person may experience physical problems with weakness or

  7. Be aware there may be some sensory impairment, such as double vision, or
    partial loss of vision or hearing.

  8. Be aware the person may have a shortened attention span.  The person may
    benefit from several short breaks instead of one long break.

  9. Be aware the person may have gaps in his or her knowledge and skills.

  10. Be aware the person may have difficulty managing two or more tasks 
    simultaneously, such as holding onto a piece of information while processing

  11. Be aware the person may have difficulty with organizational skills and "executive

  12. Be aware the person may display a lowered ability or inability to initiate on his 
    or her own.

  13. Be aware the person may display emotions that may not match the situation.

  14. Providing frequent feedback and recognizing successes is very helpful.

  15. Be aware speech may be delayed or difficult.  Be patient.


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