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Being Mindful of Language When Referring to People With Special Needs

People with special needs often face challenges in day-to-day life that most individuals may not be familiar with. It’s only natural for them to feel isolated and misunderstood. That’s why it is of utmost importance that when we talk about or refer to these individuals, we use language which is respectful and understanding of their condition.


This issue has been brought to public attention by us at the Individual Advocacy Group, who are encouraging people to be more aware and sensitive in their interactions with individuals who have special needs.


Barriers to communicating respectfully with people who have special needs


When communicating with people who have special needs, it is vital to consider the challenges they may face. Some of these challenges include difficulty expressing themselves, understanding what is said, and comprehending social cues. Other obstacles that may make communication difficult include:


  • Lack of awareness

  • Limited resources

  • Lack of accessibility


It is crucial to be mindful of these barriers and take steps to address them. One example to communicate respectfully and inclusively is when talking to a person with down syndrome, make sure to directly talk to him/her rather than the person that they are with.


Or when speaking to a person with speech problems, make sure that you listen attentively, be patient and wait for the person to finish talking rather than correcting them or speaking on their behalf.


By doing so, meaningful dialogue can occur, and everyone involved can feel comfortable during the conversation.


Benefits of respecting and understanding people with special needs


Respecting and understanding people with special needs brings numerous advantages to society, such as:


  • Reducing stigmas and promoting inclusion

  • Generating awareness of their unique needs and interests, which in turn builds a more inclusive atmosphere

  • Encouraging open-mindedness towards those with different abilities

  • Improved communication between both parties, leading to positive dialogue that can help foster meaningful relationships between individuals from different backgrounds and abilities

  • Ensuring that people with special needs have their rights upheld in all areas of life, including providing access to healthcare, education, and job opportunities as well as basic civil rights such as political participation. Taking these steps provides an opportunity for individuals with special needs to actively participate in society and reap the benefits of inclusion.


Creating awareness of language and communication sensitivity


Creating awareness of language and communication sensitivity is essential for effective communication with those who have special needs. It involves using language that is suitable in terms of being respectful and inclusive, as well as being mindful of body language that might not be easily understood by someone with special needs. For example, it is important to be conscious of facial expressions and gestures that could be misinterpreted or considered offensive.


Knowing how to communicate sensitively also involves avoiding jargon or technical terminology if the person may not understand it. Instead, speaking slowly and using simple words can ensure the other person fully comprehends what is being said. Moreover, providing feedback on the conversation rather than simply pointing out mistakes can help create a more positive environment.


Additionally, creating awareness of language and communication sensitivity also means making sure everyone has an equal opportunity to participate in any discussion. This includes ensuring everyone’s viewpoints are heard and that those people with special needs are given enough time to express themselves clearly before others try to jump in with their own opinions. Doing so ensures everyone’s ideas are treated with respect and allows for meaningful dialogue between all participants.


Here are some universal tips when engaging with people who have special needs:

  • When interacting, it's important to be respectful and speak in the same tone as you would with anyone else - that is, without shouting.

  • When conversing with someone who is vision impaired, it's important to be mindful of the words you choose. For example, avoid phrases such as “Do you see what I mean?” which may make them feel self-conscious.

  • Before providing assistance, it is important to ask the person with a disability if they need help. Do not assume that they require assistance without asking them. For example, always ask before pushing a person's wheelchair or grabbing their arm to assist.

  • When referring to people with disabilities, it is important to use "people-first language" and refer to them as "a person with a disability" rather than using terms such as "the disabled person" or "the disabled".

  • When communicating, it is essential to use effective strategies to ensure successful communication. This can include positioning yourself at eye level with the person and making appropriate eye contact.

  • Remember that the personal space of someone with a disability includes their wheelchair, scooter, crutches, walker, cane, or other mobility aid.

  • It is best to ask how someone who is hard of hearing, deaf, or deaf-blind prefers to communicate and reduce any background noise or distractions.

  • When interacting with adults who have intellectual, cognitive, or developmental disabilities, treat them as you would an adult.

  • If you do not understand something, do not pretend that you do. Instead, ask the person to repeat what they said and be patient, flexible, and supportive in the process.

  • When providing information, respect the individual's preference for written or verbal communication.

  • When giving instructions, be as precise as possible. For example, instead of saying "Come back to see the nurse in 15 minutes", say "You will see the nurse at 10:30".


At Individual Advocacy Group, it is our mission to ensure that each person's communication needs and preferences are respected. Everyone deserves the right to quality, respectful communication in every interaction, regardless of their background or circumstances. By setting clear expectations and providing precise instructions when necessary, we can create a world where everyone is heard and understood.


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