Acting with empathy: How to interact with people who have disabilities

Cropped shot of a nurse holding hands with a senior woman in a nursing home

One in four adults in the U.S. has a disability, and the percentage of people living with disabilities is highest in the South.

Yet few people who don’t have a disability are ever taught the best way to interact with people who do. The first lesson: Remember that every person is different.

“People with disabilities are people first, and they may not want to be defined by their disability,” says Dr. Stacey Dixon, licensed psychologist and behavior supports director for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. “A disability is just one piece of who that person is.”

What should everyone keep in mind when interacting with people who have disabilities?

Dr. Dixon: When we talk about someone with autism, we don’t say “an autistic person.” We say “Joe, who has autism,” or “Joe, who’s on the spectrum.”

When you think of someone as a person first, you give that person all the same needs and wants and goals as someone without a disability.

Starting from that place, you’ll do a better job of listening to people and seeing the whole person rather than just a part of them.

What’s the best way to speak about people with disabilities?

Dr. Dixon: Use people first language (PFL), which puts the person before the disability, and describes what a person has, not who a person is.

The Office of Disability Rights makes the following recommendations:

OUTDATED TERM REPLACE WITH
A “afflicted with ____”

“autistic”

“has _____”

“has autism”

C “crippled” “has a physical disability” OR “uses a wheelchair”
D “the disabled”

“disabled adults”

“disabled people”

“disabled children”

“people with disabilities”

“adults with disabilities”

“people with disabilities”

“children with disabilities”

F “feebleminded” “has a cognitive disability”
H “a handicap”

“the handicapped”

“handicapped bathrooms”

“a disability”

“people with disabilities”

“accessible bathrooms” OR

“bathrooms accessible to people with disabilities”

I “insane person”

“the insane”

“imbecile”

“invalid”

“person with a mental health condition”

“people with a mental health conditions”

“person with a cognitive disability”

“person with a physical disability”

M “maimed”

“the mentally ill”

“mentally ill person”

“person with a disability”

“people with mental health conditions”

“person with a mental health condition”

L “learning disabled”

“lunatic”

“has a learning disability”

“person with a mental health condition”

S “suffering from ____ ” “has a disability” OR “has ____”
W “wheelchair-bound” “person who uses a wheelchair”

What common mistakes do people make when interacting with people with disabilities?

Dr. Dixon: Often, people make mistakes because they’re uncomfortable, unfamiliar or uneducated about how a person with a disability wants to be treated. Putting the person first goes a long way, and the rest can be learned.

Here are 8 common mistakes to avoid.

1. Ignoring the person

  • Direct your comments or questions to the person you’re speaking with, even if they have a companion or interpreter, and even if they are nonverbal.
  • The companion or interpreter will know to answer without being addressed directly, and you’ll ensure you don’t leave out the person with a disability.

2. Speaking loudly or differently 

  • Don’t change your voice when speaking to someone who has a disability. While people often do this without thinking, it’s very frustrating to the person you’re speaking to.
  • Don’t talk down to an adult. Match your manner of speaking and your vocabulary to the person’s age.

3. Ignoring misunderstandings

  • If you don’t know what the person is trying to communicate, say that. They may be with someone who can tell you, or they may have alternate ways of communicating.
  • If the person is nonverbal, pay attention to gestures and vocalizations. Take the time to learn how the person prefers to communicate.

4. Assuming the person needs help when they don’t

  • Trying to be too helpful can decrease a person’s opportunities for independence.
  • So can offering to help repeatedly with an activity someone can do themselves — even if it takes them longer to complete on their own.
  • Don’t take it personally if they don’t want help.

5. Underestimating the person’s interest in normal activities

  • Don’t expect a person with a disability to be less interested in normal activities.
  • Don’t assume that they don’t want to work, or that they can’t work.

6. Towering over the person

  • Try not to tower over a person who uses a wheelchair when speaking to them.
  • Steer the conversation toward a table or somewhere you can sit. Crouch only if you have to.

7. Touching a person’s guide dog

  • Don’t touch guide dogs!
  • Guide dogs are working animals, acting as a tool for the person with the disability.
  • When you’re interacting with the dog, you’re pulling them off task without intending to.

8. Touching a person’s equipment

  • Don’t touch anything — a cane, scooter, walker, chair — without asking.
  • Assistive devices are an extension of a person. Treat them just as you would that person’s body part.

What advice would you give for long-term interactions?

Dr. Dixon: Take some time to consider how that person’s day plays out. Whether the person is blind or they have cerebral palsy, consider what their daily routine looks like.

What’s it like for that person to get up? Put on clothes? Prepare breakfast? Get to work? By mentally putting yourself in their place and thinking through how you’d squeeze toothpaste without the use of your dominant arm, for example, you’ll get a better sense of all the obstacles that person faces every day that people don’t think about. That creates actionable empathy.

Beyond that, ask the person what they need. Say:

  • What do you need from me when we’re communicating?
  • What do you want help with?
  • What do you not want help with?
  • What’s tough for you?
  • Is there anything I can do to help?

Keeping the lines of communication open is important, and it’s really something we could all get better at doing.

Mental health matters: How to think and speak sensitively

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also use tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the in the Member Wellness Center under the Managing Your Health tab.

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Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).