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Accessible Communication Supports

Here are a few tips for engaging in accessible communications, taking into account different disability experiences. If you’re not sure about the best approach, just ask a person with a disability how you can best communicate with them.

People with physical disabilities

Only some people with physical disabilities use a wheelchair. Someone with a spinal cord injury may use crutches while someone with severe arthritis or a heart condition may have difficulty walking longer distances.

  • If you need to have a lengthy conversation with someone who uses a wheelchair or scooter, consider sitting so you can make eye contact at the same level.
  • Don’t touch items or equipment, such as canes or wheelchairs, without permission.
  • If you have permission to move a person’s wheelchair, don’t leave them in an awkward, dangerous or undignified position, such as facing a wall or in the path of opening doors.

People with vision loss

Vision loss can restrict someone’s ability to read, locate landmarks or see hazards. Some individuals may use a guide dog or a white cane, while others may not.

  • When you know someone has vision loss, don’t assume the individual can’t see you. Many people who have low vision still have some sight.
  • Identify yourself when you approach and speak directly to the individual.
  • Ask if they would like you to read any printed material out loud to them (for example, a menu or schedule of fees).
  • When providing directions or instructions, be precise and descriptive.
  • Offer your elbow to guide them if needed – do not grab a person to guide them without their explicit consent.

People with hearing loss

People who have hearing loss may be Deaf, deafened or hard of hearing (or self-identify with other identity labels that indicate loss or absence of hearing). They may also be oral deaf – unable to hear, but prefer to talk instead of using sign language. These terms are used to describe different levels of hearing and/or the way a person’s hearing was diminished or lost.

  • Once an individual has identified themselves as having hearing loss or as being Deaf,  make sure you are in a well-lit area where they can see your face and read your lips.
  • As needed, attract the individual’s attention before speaking. Try a gentle touch on the shoulder or wave of your hand.
  • If a person uses a hearing aid, reduce background noise or move to a quieter area.
  • If necessary, ask if another method of communicating would be easier (for example, using a pen and paper or the AVA captioning app for Android /iOS).

People who are deafblind

A person who is deafblind may have some degree of both hearing and vision loss. Many people who are deafblind will be accompanied by an intervenor, a professional support person who supports communication.

  • A person who is deafblind is likely to explain to you how to communicate with them, perhaps with an assistance card or a note.
  • Speak directly to the person, not to the intervenor.

People with speech or language disabilities

Cerebral palsy, hearing loss or other disabilities may make it difficult for a person to pronounce words or may cause slurring. Some people who have severe difficulties may use a communication board or other assistive devices.

  • Don’t assume that a person with a speech impairment also has another disability.
  • Whenever possible, ask questions that can be answered with “yes” or “no”.
  • Be patient. Don’t interrupt or finish a person’s sentence.

People who have learning disabilities

The term “learning disabilities” refers to a variety of disorders. One example is dyslexia, which affects how a person takes in or retains information. This disability may become apparent when a person has difficulty reading material or understanding the information you are providing.

  • Be patient – people with some learning disabilities may take a little longer to process information, to understand and to respond.
  • Try to provide information in a way that takes into account the person’s disability. For example, some people with learning disabilities find written words difficult to understand, while others may have problems with numbers and math.

People who have intellectual or developmental disabilities

Developmental or intellectual disabilities, such as Down Syndrome, can impact a person’s ability to learn, communicate, do everyday physical activities and live independently. You may not know that someone has this disability unless you are told.

  • Don’t make assumptions about what a person can do.
  • Use plain language.
  • Provide one piece of information at a time.

People who have mental health disabilities

Mental health disabilities can affect a person’s ability to think clearly, concentrate or remember things. Mental health disability is a broad term for many disorders that can range in complexity. For example, some individuals may experience anxiety due to hallucinations, mood swings, phobias, or panic disorder.

  • If you sense or know that a person has a mental health disability be sure to treat them with the same respect and consideration you have for everyone else.
  • Be confident, calm and reassuring.
  • If a person appears to be in crisis, ask them to tell you the best way to support them in that moment.

People who use assistive devices

An assistive device is a tool, technology or other mechanism that enables a person with a disabilit(ies) to do everyday tasks and activities, such as moving, communicating or lifting. Personal assistive devices can include things like wheelchairs, hearing aids, white canes or speech amplification devices.

  • Don’t touch or handle any assistive device without permission.
  • Don’t move assistive devices or equipment, such as canes and walkers, out of the person’s reach.
  • Let McMaster community members know about accessible features in the immediate environment that are appropriate to their needs (e.g. public phones with TTY service, accessible washrooms, etc.).
  • If your area offers any equipment or devices for persons with disabilities, make sure you know how to use them.
    • It could be helpful to have instruction manuals handy or an instruction sheet posted where the device is located or stored.

Some examples of assistive devices that your area might offer include:

  • Lifts, which raise or lowers people who use mobility devices
  • Accessible interactive kiosks, which might offer information or services in Braille or through audio headsets
  • Wheelchairs

Person who has a guide dog or other service animal

People with vision loss may use a guide dog, but there are other types of service animals as well. Hearing alert animals support people who are Deaf, deafened, oral deaf, or hard of hearing. Other service animals are trained to alert an individual to an oncoming seizure.

Under the AODA’s Customer Service Standard, service animals must be allowed on the parts of your premises that are open to the public. In some instances, service animals will not be permitted in certain areas by law (for example, a restaurant kitchen).

  • Remember that a service animal is not a pet. Avoid touching or addressing them.
  • Avoid making assumptions about the animal. If you’re not sure if the animal is a pet or a service animal, ask the individual.

Someone being accompanied by a support person

Some people with disabilities may be accompanied by a support person, such as an intervenor. A support person can be a personal support worker, a volunteer, a family member or a friend. A support person might help this individual with a variety of things from communicating, to helping with mobility, personal care or medical needs.

Welcome support people to your work or study place. They are permitted in any part of your premises that is open to the public. If your organization is one that charges admission, such as a theatre or gallery, provide notice, in advance, about what admission fee will be charged for a support person.

  • If you’re not sure which person is the customer, take your lead from the person using or requesting your goods or services, or simply ask.
  • Speak directly to the person with disabilities, not to their support person.

People with disabilities who need to access your goods or services

  • If you notice that someone is having difficulty accessing your goods or services, a good starting point is to simply ask “How can I help you?”
  • Individuals with disabilities know what works best for them. A solution can be simple and they will likely appreciate your attention and consideration.

Inclusive language guidelines

Inclusive language is language that is free from terminology, tones or phrases that reflect stereotyped or discriminatory views of particular people or groups. Explore the following inclusive language guidelines: