Communication tips

When you meet a person who may have a disability that affects their communication:

  • Treat the person with respect by saying “hello”.  Make eye-contact.
  • Talk directly to the person, not just the individual who might be with them.
  • Speak naturally and clearly, using your normal tone, volume and rate.
  • Ask what you can do to make communication go smoothly. People who communicate in different ways are the experts on how they communicate and what they want you to do.
  • Do not underestimate the person’s abilities.
  • Be patient. Do not rush the conversation.
  • Wait for the person to finish their message. Do not guess unless the person gives you permission to do so.
  • If it isn’t obvious how the person communicates, ask them to show you how they communicate “Yes” and “No”. Use “Yes” and “No” questions to find out how the person wants to communicate with you.
  • Always politely tell the person if you do not understand their message.

If the person uses a letter or picture board

  • If it is not obvious, say, “Please show me how you communicate.” The person will either demonstrate or show you their communication instructions. These instructions are usually on the person’s communication board or on the person’s wheelchair tray if they use one.
  • If the person uses their hand to point to items on a board, say the letter, word or picture out loud that they select.
  • If the person uses a way other than pointing, such as an eye gaze to select items on his/her communication board, they probably have someone with them to assist you communicating with them.
  • It often helps to write down the items that the person selects so that you can keep track of the message.
  • If the items that the person selects do not make immediate sense, try putting the words together into a sentence.

If the person uses a communication device

  • Stand or sit in front of the person. Do not look over their shoulder or ask how they use the device.
  • Wait for the person to construct their message.
  • If you don’t understand the speech, tell the person and they will either repeat it or indicate that you can read the screen.

If the person’s speech is unclear

  • Watch the person as they speak.
  • Move to a quiet area with no distractions.
  • Take the time to get used to the person’s speech. It gets easier the more you listen, and the person may need to repeat what they are saying a few times before you understand.
  • Tell the person if you don’t understand what they are saying. The person will either say it another way, show you what they are talking about, spell it out verbally, write it down, use a communication device or point to letters, words or pictures on their communication board.

If the person has difficulty understanding what you are saying

Some people, not everyone, may have difficulty understanding what you are saying. People may want you to:

  • Use clear, everyday language
  • Avoid using unnecessary words, jargon, technical terms and long, ambiguous sentences.
  • Pause between your sentences. Allow time for the person to understand or to speak, nod, signal “yes” or use their communication board or device.
  • If there is a communication assistant present, this person may rephrase what you are saying or use other strategies to support the individual in understanding what you are saying.
  • Show the person what you are talking about by:
  • Using gestures
  • Pointing at objects, people or pictures
  • Writing the key words that you are saying
  • Drawing a picture or diagram

If the person has a hearing loss

  • Make sure the person is looking at you before you start talking and that they can see your mouth.
  • Speak normally, do not yell or shout.
  • Do not speak too quickly.
  • Make sure your face is well lit – avoid backlighting so the person can see you when speaking.
  • Reduce background noise.
  • Explore other ways of communicating such as writing, typing or showing examples of what you are talking about.
  • Check that the person understands what you are saying.

Click here for more information from The Canadian Hearing Society (CHS)

If the person uses a communication assistant

A communication assistant is an individual who interprets a person’s speech if it is unclear or assists a person who uses a communication display or device.

It is important to:

  • Ensure that the person who accompanies an individual is authorized to assist them with communication. Once you have confirmed the role, accept the person’s messages as conveyed to you by the assistant.
  • Speak directly to the individual, not to the assistant.
  • Observe the person directing the assistant so that you know they are communicating and approving their messages. If you are unsure about a message, ask the person “Is that what you wanted to communicate?”
  • The communication assistant may also help the person understand what is being said to them.

Click here for videos and more information