Communicating with People with Disabilities Who Have Companions or Aides: Remember Who You're Talking To

Published December 10, 2020

If you’re wondering how to communicate with individuals with disabilities who have companions or aides, it’s good to remind yourself who it is you’re looking to communicate with. If the answer is not the person’s companion or aide, it’s better not to assume the person you’re looking to speak with is incapable of hearing, understanding, and/or speaking. Making assumptions about a person's ability to communicate is offensive and ineffective.

Even if the recipient of your communication uses an interpreter, be sure to look at and speak directly to the person you’re wanting to converse with instead. Communicate as you would with anyone else – by speaking directly to the recipient, which is a respectful way to approach a person with disabilities, and it helps you avoid offending others. This applies regardless of what a person’s disability is, whether related to mobility, speech, language, cognitive ability, vision, or hearing.

The following are some quick pointers to use when speaking with people, even if they have a companion or aide:

  • Speak to the person first, not the person they are with.
  • Introduce yourself to the person and their aide and offer to shake hands with both of them, but then direct your communication to the individual with whom you would like to speak.
  • Talk to the person as you would anyone else. For example, don't talk to an adult like a child, and refrain from speaking louder or slower than you typically would unless specifically asked to do so.
  • If you’re having a difficult time understanding the person, let them know you’d like for them to repeat the information, instead of pretending to understand. You might repeat what you think the person said, if necessary, to confirm you’ve heard them correctly. Be patient and don’t interrupt. Don’t try to complete their sentences if you think they’re struggling or speaking slowly. Ask questions that require shorter answers if necessary.
  • Don't touch a person’s wheelchair or companion animal without permission. Even if it appears the animal isn’t working, it is, so don’t be offended if you aren’t able to pet a service animal.
  • Try to converse at eye-level, which may mean sitting down when speaking with someone in a wheelchair.
  • Do not talk down to or pity people with disabilities. They don’t need or appreciate your pity.

If you find it difficult to understand the person you are attempting to communicate with, just be honest and ask if there is something or someone who can help. There are many ways to communicate and a person who has difficulty speaking usually might gladly share which method works best if the need arises.

As a general rule, speak to and treat the person as you would anyone else, or the way you want to be spoken to or treated. Just as you wouldn’t want a waiter asking your significant other what you’d like to eat at a restaurant, and your significant other assuming what you would like to eat, you shouldn’t speak to a person’s companion or aide about matters that pertain to the person.