Effective Communication Strategies

Simple misunderstandings can be the source of conflict between people who are different from each other in some way. Poor communication is the cause of many such situations. The absence of effective communication and feedback may give rise to a perception of discrimination. Better communication at the onset of the relationship is one way to offset this. Better communication, while not a panacea, can help to reduce the scope and severity misperceptions. This site is designed to help you interact and communicate with people who have disabilities. In a classroom setting it is important for professors and students to show the same understanding and support to students with disabilities as they would to other students. While there is really nothing extraordinary about meeting and communicating with people with disabilities, using the suggested behaviors could bridge some of the perceived and real differences that exist between people with and without disabilities.

General Strategies for Communicating Effectively with Students with Disabilities

Effective communication and consultation are often vital to students' adjustment and success at college. The following strategies are important for communicating effectively with students who have disabilities.

  • Use person first language and refer to students with disabilities, students who are blind, etc. Person first language emphasizes that you view students with disabilities as individuals and it avoids labeling.
  • When interacting with students with disabilities, students' individuality rather than their disability, should be the focus of communication. Only refer to a student's disability if it is essential to the conversation.
  • Avoid using words which imply pity for students with disabilities, such as "suffering from", "victim of", "unfortunate", "afflicted with."
  • Emphasize abilities, not disabilities. Say, "uses a wheelchair" rather than "cannot walk" or "confined to a wheelchair." A wheelchair provides new opportunities it does not confine.
  • When describing a person without disabilities use "non-disabled" instead of "normal". "Able-bodied" is less appropriate because it implies that all people with disabilities have physical disabilities.
  • Avoid patronizing stereotypes that imply students with disabilities are courageous in the face of adversity, patient, endowed with special gifts as compensation for their disability, or childlike.
  • Speak directly to the student with the disability rather than the person who may be assisting them.
  • Ridiculing a student because of a disability, either in class or one-to-one, is obviously demeaning. Equally demeaning is an attitude that is patronizing or shows fake enthusiasm for a student's contributions. Students with disabilities require the same sincerity and professionalism you would accord all students.
  • Ask students with disabilities for suggestions about ways in which you might be able to help them work effectively in your course. Students with disabilities are likely to have already found that certain strategies are effective for their particular situation.
  • Confidentiality is an important issue. When you assist a student with a disability, it is extremely important to respect that student's privacy. Do not make comments about them to other students or your colleagues.
  • Include a statement in your syllabus that notifies students with particular requirements that you are available to talk after class. The statement should notify students that in order to receive accommodations they must be registered with the Disabilities Resource Center. This approach preserves students' privacy and indicates that you are willing to provide assistance.
  • Do not make students with disabilities discuss their needs in front of other people.
  • Keep an open mind and avoid skepticism or hostility.

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Classroom Strategies for Communicating Effectively with Students with Disabilities

  • When lecturing, showing films, holding class discussions, and going on field trips, try to take into account that various disabilities can limit students' ability to receive and/or transmit information.
  • When possible provide a course study guide that includes specific terms and concepts used in the course material. Including questions relating to specific chapters or laboratory work can be particularly helpful.
  • Encourage students to use various learning techniques to adapt course material to their individual learning style.
  • It is important to notify students of course changes, such as changes of venue, time, etc, as promptly and clearly as possible.
  • Use a multi-modal approach to teaching whenever possible. Everyone has a modality of information processing that suits him or her best. Combine lecturing with visual reinforcements, demonstrations, concrete examples or personal anecdotes.
  • Be sure to explain overheads or diagrams used.
  • Avoid unnecessary movement during lectures, especially if you have students who are easily distracted, are taping your lecture or are lip-reading.
  • If you talk while you are writing on the board, make sure that you restate this information once you turn around.
  • When possible, reinforce main ideas. Give cues to the student that this information is important.
  • Frequently review key concepts to ensure that students understand them.
  • Encourage students to use their accommodations, services through the DRC, and campus support services (e.g., reading/writing/math labs, peer support groups, study skills, etc.).
  • Start each lecture with an outline of material you will be covering in the class period.
  • Speak directly to students, and use gestures and natural expressions to convey further meaning.
  • Present new or technical vocabulary on the blackboard or use a student handout. Use terms in context to convey greater meaning.
  • Give assignments both orally and in written form to avoid confusion.
  • Provide memory tricks and study strategies whenever possible.
  • Provide adequate opportunities for questions and answers, including review sessions.
  • At the conclusion of the class, briefly summarize key points.

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Communicating Effectively with Students with Learning Disabilities

A learning disability is a hidden neurological disorder that may affect input, output, and processing of information.

  • In practical terms, learning disabilities may involve problems with reading, arithmetic, spelling, writing, speaking in an organized manner, sequencing, managing time and gross and fine motor coordination. An individual may have one or several learning disabilities.
  • Students with learning disabilities will have greater success at learning if all sense modalities can be used in the teaching-learning process -- visual, auditory, tactile, kinesthetic.
  • Type materials whenever possible. If these must be handwritten, print clearly. Cursive writing is confusing for students with reading or perceptual problems.

Communicating Effectively with Students with ADHD

Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a hidden neurological disorder that influences college students' learning and behavior. There are many positive traits often seen in students with ADHD such as high energy level, intensity about interests, creativity and responsiveness to structure. Properly channeled, these qualities can lead to success in learning. This disorder may involve inattention, impulsivity, hyperactivity, mood swings, low stress tolerance and difficulty in following rules. College students with ADHD may have problems with organizing, prioritizing, completing tasks on time, doing lengthy assignments, performing tasks with many steps, writing papers, handling mathematics requirements, interacting with faculty and other students in an appropriate manner, meeting expectations and following rules. Effective communication strategies include:

  • Providing structure and reduce distraction in class or office.
  • Simplifying and repeating instructions or information, as needed, both orally and in writing.
  • Giving frequent and specific responses to students.
  • Clearly stating the rules, policies, and behaviors expected in the classroom or office.
  • Consistently following the rules and immediately pointing out the times when students are breaking the rules.
  • Reviewing rules and expectations and using behavioral management techniques as needed.
  • Being firm, matter of fact, and specific when interacting with students with ADHD.
  • Helping the students structure their work area and tasks.
  • Avoiding unnecessary movement during lectures if you have students who are easily distractible.

Communicating Effectively with Students with Physical and Mobility Impairments

Students often try to be as independent as they can and assistance is not always required. Most students with physical limitations will ask for assistance if they need it.

  • Offer assistance if you wish, but do not insist on helping.
  • When talking to your student who is in a wheelchair and the conversation continues for more than a few minutes, it is courteous to sit down, kneel, or squat if convenient. This is a more positive communication posture, enhances communication and alleviates neck strain.
  • A wheelchair is part of the student's "personal space" so it is not considered polite to hang or lean on the chair-- it is similar to hanging or leaning on the person.
  • When expressing support or affection to students using wheelchairs, avoid patting them on the head. Patting them on the shoulder or arm is a much more positive gesture.
  • Feel free to use words such as "walking" or "standing" in conversation; people in wheelchairs use the same words.
  • If students' speech is difficult to understand, ask to hear it again. Also, allow students to speak for themselves and complete the communication; never do it for them.
  • Never move a student's crutches or cane out of his/her reach. If they are in the path and are likely to trip others, you may ask him to place them under his chair or the table where he is working.

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Communicating Effectively with Students with Psychiatric Disabilities

"How do I know if someone is mentally ill?" You do not know for sure, but there are some general characteristics that people exhibit when they are mentally ill or are taking medication because of a mental health condition. They may seem very distracted. They may seem unable to focus on your conversation or their work. They may talk about things that do not make any sense. Their eyes may be glassy or they may have no expression on their face. Other psychiatric disorders may make people seem extremely depressed and lethargic or, on the other hand, extremely hyper and excited. Occasionally, students with certain types of disabilities become extremely agitated and disruptive. They could have had a severe head trauma that makes them unable to control their anger under stress, or they may have a mental illness that causes them to have psychotic episodes.

Before problems arise, develop several different response plans with your supervisor and co-workers. Consider having a code word that staff recognize as a call for help but that won't upset the person further. Every individual and disorder are unique, but there are general things you can remember when working with students displaying mental health problems:

  • Present a calm, serious appearance.
  • Speak softly in a calm, normal voice.
  • Talk in a non-judgmental manner (don't "shame and blame" or patronize).
  • Encourage the person to talk to you and explain the situation from her perspective.
  • If the person makes bizarre statements, don't agitate him or her by disagreeing. It is better to just agree or let the comment pass.
  • Try to keep the person focused on their task.
  • Write information down for her or him to read through later when she or he may be able to think clearer.
  • You may need to repeat information several times or explain things that seem obvious to you.
  • Don't make promises you can't keep.
  • If students with mental health problems seem to need counseling for disability-related issues, do not try to do it yourself. Encourage them to discuss problems with the Disabilities Resource Center or Counseling Center.
  • If this is someone you will be working with on a regular basis and you would like some tips for your more specific situation, feel free to contact the DRC staff.
  • After you've experienced an encounter of concern, ask your supervisor who should be made aware of the incident on your campus.
  • If the person is a student, you could contact a DRC counselor and relate what happened. It will help us work with the student in the future and support you.

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Communicating Effectively with Students with Speech Impairments

  • If a person's speech is difficult to understand, ask politely to hear it again. Do not pretend to understand a person's speech if you do not -- be honest.
  • Allow the person with a speech impairment to speak for himself or herself and complete their communication; never interrupt or do it for the person.
  • Never try to hurry the person as this may only make the impairment worse.
  • You may wish to ask questions that require short answers or a nod of the head.
  • If you continue to have difficulty, offer pen and paper (if the person is physically able to write). You may also admit that you can not understand and ask if you can get a co-worker to try.
  • If the person on the other end of a telephone call has speech impairment, do not immediately assume that he or she has the wrong extension and transfer his or her call to Disabilities Resource Center.

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Students with Visual Impairments

  • If a person with a visual impairment seems to need assistance, identify yourself and offer your services but do not insist on helping.
  • There is no need to raise your voice when speaking to a student with a visual impairment.
  • Occasionally students will have a dog helping them. Since these are working animals, it can be hazardous for them if the dog is distracted. Check for the owner's preference before petting the dog.
  • If you are walking together let the student take your arm just above the elbow. Walk in a relaxed manner and the student can usually follow the motions of your body. Give a warning when you are approaching a step or other obstacle.
  • When giving directions, use descriptive words such as "straight ahead" or "forward." Be specific in directions, by avoiding vague terms such as "over there." Refer to positions in terms of clock hands: "The chair is at your 2:00."
  • When interacting with students with visual impairments, use verbal identification when you arrive or leave an area.
  • Do not hesitate to use words like "see" or "look" when speaking with your student.
  • Do not assume a student will recognize you by your voice, even if you have met before. Identify yourself by name, maintain normal voice volume, speak directly to the person, and maintain eye contact.
  • Use verbal cues to let the person know when you arrive or leave an area.
  • Orient student with visual impairments to the room by explaining where things are located around the room. Inform students where classroom furniture is located when rearrangement occurs.
  • When offering a seat, give a verbal cue as to the location of the seat.
  • Keep doors fully open or closed to prevent accidents.
  • Visual aids during lectures can be adapted by using clear descriptions of the visual material presented. This includes verbalizing what you write on the board or information on overheads.
  • Students with visual impairments will likely miss a notice written on a blackboard. Give verbal notice of room or homework changes, special meetings, or assignments.
  • When visual cues are not available, the student must receive all auditory cues possible.
  • For low-vision students, contrast, print-style, and spacing are very important. Make sure you clearly type all handouts and tests in dark print.
  • Whenever possible, try to make clear how similar parts or processes can be distinguished by touch or sound.
  • Only use graphs or charts on exams that you have introduced in class well before the test.

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Students who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing

  • Maintain eye contact with the student. Do not turn away in the middle of a sentence.
  • Avoid communicating while moving because moving reduces facial visibility and background sounds may be distracting.
  • When any student asks questions from the class, it is helpful if you would repeat the question before answering it.
  • Be aware that students with hearing impairments cannot look at you and do other work at the same time. Allow enough time for students to study printed material (such as handouts, charts, and over-heads), fill out paperwork, or complete the task/step you have just described before continuing.
  • Get students' attention before beginning to speak. This may necessitate physical contact, such as a tap on the shoulder.
  • Try to stay on the topic of discussion and make the topic clear. Students with hearing impairments pick up words in context that helps them follow the conversation more easily. This is especially important for those who depend on oral communication.
  • Use facial expression to help convey your message, but do not exaggerate your mouth movements. Over emphasizing words distorts the lips, making speech reading more difficult. Try to speak slowly and clearly, enunciating each word without force or tension.
  • Do not place anything in front of your mouth when speaking. Mustaches, pencil chewing, and putting your hands in front of your face make it difficult for students with hearing impairments to follow what is being said.
  • If students' with hearing impairments have difficulty understanding something you have said, try repeating the phrase and showing procedures. If students still do not understand your message, try rephrasing your thought rather than repeating the same words.
  • Do not be embarrassed to communicate by paper and pencil if necessary. Getting the message across is more important than the medium.
  • Use open-ended questions that require answers to be more than just "yes" or "no." Do not assume that students have understood your message if they are only required to nod in acknowledgement. Open-ended questions ensure communication of your information.
  • Ask student to repeat instructions or procedures for confirmation of complete understanding. Give the student an opportunity to rephrase directions for confirmation of understanding.
  • Discuss with students where it would be best for him/her and the interpreter to sit in the classroom. The optimum situation would be for the interpreter to be near the instructor and for the student to be in the front of the room for a clear view.
  • Try not to lecture with your back to the class (as when writing on the blackboard) because it destroys any chance of your student getting facial or lipreading cues. Using an overhead projector often alleviates this problem.
  • Feel free to call upon students with hearing impairments in class as you would do with any other student.
  • Try to avoid standing in front of a strong light source (such as windows) because the glare from behind you makes reading lips and other facial features difficult.
  • If reduction of the room lighting is necessary, check to see that sufficient light is available for the student to see the interpreter's signs and lip movements.
  • Notify DRC as soon as possible if there are inaccessible videos or audio files that will be used in class or that students will be expected to access online.

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