The Right Way to Communicate with People with Special Needs

Most people would characterize themselves as understanding and accepting of people with special needs or disabilities. That’s what most of us strive to be. Yet many people admit to feeling uncomfortable around a person with special needs because they’re afraid they may say or do the wrong thing.


Easter Seals (, a longtime advocate for people with special needs, has excellent advice on interacting with people with disabilities:

In Conversation

Speak directly to a person with a disability, rather than through a companion.


• Don’t be embarrassed if you happen to use accepted, common expressions, such as “See you later” or “Got to be running along” that seem to inappropriately relate to the person’s disability.


• To get the attention of a person with a hearing disability, tap the person gently on the shoulder or wave your hand. Look directly at the person and speak clearly, slowly and expressively. Place yourself facing the light source, and keep your hands and food away from your mouth when speaking. Shouting won’t help. Written notes will.


• When talking with a person in a wheelchair for more than a few minutes, place yourself at the person’s eye level to spare both of you a stiff neck.


• When greeting a person with severe vision loss, always identify yourself and others who may be with you. Say, for example, “On my right is Jackie Richardson.” When conversing in a group, give vocal cues, such as identifying the person to whom you are speaking. Speak in a normal tone of voice, indicate when you move from one place to another and when the conversation is ending.


• Give whole, unhurried attention when talking to a person who has difficulty speaking. Keep your manner encouraging, rather than correcting. Be patient; try not to speak for the person. When necessary, ask short questions that require short answers or a nod or shake of the head. Never pretend to understand if you are having difficulty doing so. 


Common Courtesies

• Offer assistance to a person with a disability if you feel like it, but wait until your offer is accepted before you help. When giving directions to a person in a wheelchair, consider distance, weather conditions and physical obstacles, such as stairs, curbs and steep hills.


• Be considerate of the extra time it might take for a person with a disability to get things done or said. Let the person set the pace in walking and talking.


• It’s OK to ask people about their disabilities, but it’s also OK for them not to want to talk about it.


If you have friends with disabilities, invite them to visit you and think of ways to include them in the things you do. Remember to consider their needs ahead of time, and let them know if a barrier exists at an event you’re inviting them to. Treat a person with a disability the way you like to be treated and you’ll have a friend for life.

– Deirdre Wilson 

Special Needs