In a relatively short time perceptions of people with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities (IDDs) have come a long way. However, many Americans and citizens around the world haven’t been close to or shared experiences with someone with a disability. As a result, people with disabilities still face challenges in communicating with their able-bodied counterparts, often because the able-bodied person holds misconceptions rooted in fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. 

Consider these tips for speaking respectfully and compassionately to people with intellectual disabilities.

How to Speak with People with Intellectual Disabilities

Communicating with people who have disabilities doesn’t require you to learn a new language. More likely, all you need to do is take a breath, be patient and treat the person just like anyone else you would speak with. After all, they are people … just people with more challenges than others.

Use people-first language

When speaking about someone who has an intellectual and/or developmental disability, use terms like “person with a disability” or “person who is blind”. Describing their challenges this way humanizes them and emphasizes their abilities instead of their disabilities.

Don’t use outdated terminology like “retarded, crippled, or handicapped”. Words like these only focus on the negatives and end up strengthening misconceptions.

Talk directly to the person

Have you ever tried to talk to someone who’s not looking at you? It’s frustrating, right? It feels like you misheard them, they weren’t actually talking to you or they are being dismissive. People with disabilities feel the same way you do. 

Talk directly to the person at eye level. Sit if they are sitting, or kneel if they are resting on the floor. Give them your full attention but don’t expect them to hold eye contact with you. That’s a skill disabilities can make a real challenge, but it doesn’t mean they’re not listening.

Speak clearly and calmly. Don’t shout

Intellectual disabilities have widely varying symptoms, which means people with IDDs aren’t always hard of hearing. Speaking clearly and calmly in a normal tone of voice is the best way to get your message across. Shouting isn’t going to help them understand you.

Assume that the person is doing okay without you

Seeing a person with a disability working through a task may seem like they are struggling, but they often work at a different pace than able-bodied people. Their pace is completely normal to them. Don’t assume they need help. 

If you’re unsure if they need help, just ask. If they reply that they are okay, or can do it themselves, acknowledge their ability and let them direct you further.

Don’t forget that disabilities vary and so do the ways you can communicate

Disabilities can take form as hearing loss, blindness, low motor control and other varying symptoms. Here is a guide with more tips on how to communicate with persons with specific disabilities.  

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