If you haven’t spent much time around someone with a disability, you might feel unsure about how to best interact with them.

Ultimately, there is no ‘correct’ way to interact with someone with disability—like with anything, it comes down to the individual’s preferences.

In this two-part blog, Zane McKenzie from the Scope Education team provides five tips to help you feel more confident in speaking to people with a disability.

Tip #1: Relax and be yourself

People sometimes drastically change the way they would normally interact because they’re worried about saying or doing the wrong thing.

My greatest advice would just be who you are, take a leap of faith and start the conversation with a “hello” and a handshake.

Tip #2: Speak at your usual pace, volume and tone

As human beings, we have a wide range of ways we communicate with others regardless of whether we live have a disability or not.

When talking to someone with disability, you might feel tempted to adjust your language, pace, tone and volume.

Making assumptions about a person’s level of cognition, however can potentially offend them.

Just speak to the person as you normally would and if you find your usual way of communication isn’t working, try to figure out alternative forms of communicating that works for the both of you.

Tip #3: Ask if a person needs assistance or support, and how you can best support them

If you think that a person needs help, always ask first. It is important not to assume that a person needs support. Generally, people like to be as independent as possible, but occasionally may need help along the way. The individual will know what you can do, if anything, to support them.  If you offer support or assistance and the person says no, respect their answer, but don’t let that deter you from offering them or other people your support in the future.

Tip #4: Use ‘person first’ language

Language has the ability to empower people, and make them feel included. On the other hand, language can also exclude and belittle, even when it is unintentional.

When talking about people with disability, its important to always refer to the person, rather than their disability first.

Here are a few examples:

Say “person with a disability” rather than “disabled person.”

A person may be “in a wheelchair” or “a wheelchair user” but not “wheelchair-bound” or “confined to a wheelchair”.

A person may have a hearing impairment, vision impairment or communication difficulty, but they are not “the blind guy,” “the deaf lady” or “the non-verbal bloke.”

A person who needs support with their meal does not “need feeding”, they may require “meal assistance”.

Tip #5: Respect personal space and property

Sometimes, when interacting with someone with disability, people have a different sense of physical space. For example, they might unconsciously come physically closer than they usually would. I personally believe this stems from a limited knowledge of commonly accepted behaviours around people living with a disability.

Avoid leaning on a person’s mobility aid or wheelchair, or attempting to drive their chair for them. Most wheelchair users see their wheelchair as a part of themselves, so it is not appropriate to make contact or touch the wheelchair without permission.

The same applies to people with vision impairment who use a guide dog. Be aware that when you see a guide dog it is likely to be working, so patting or interacting with the dog will not be appreciated. This also applies for people who use communication devices. If in doubt, ask the owner!

Thank you for reading…Part two coming soon!!


Zane McKenzie is a father, a football fanatic and a disability educator at Scope’s Communication and Inclusion Resource Centre. You can read more about who Zane is here.