Communicating with someone who has an intellectual disability

Woman sitting with headphones

You don’t have to feel awkward when talking to someone with an intellectual disability. Overthinking what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it is normal especially if you don’t have regular contact with people living with disability. Here are some dos and don’ts for communicating with someone who has a disability.


Use positive language
The words we use are important because they can either enforce or breakdown certain stigmas around disability. For example:

  • Say: ‘person with a disability’ instead of ‘disabled/crippled’ person
  • Say: ‘person without a disability’ instead of ‘normal person’
  • Say ‘person with a mental illness’ instead of ‘mentally ill person/crazy person’

Ask a person to repeat themselves if you don’t understand
If you can’t understand what someone has said to you, it’s okay to ask the person to repeat themselves. If you continue to have trouble, it can be appropriate to use communication aids such as a pen and paper – if you get permission. Or, if the person has a carer, you can ask for help. The important thing is to remain patient and inclusive, as opposed to dismissive, frustrated or demeaning in anyway.

Maintain eye contact
This is especially important when communicating with more than one person at a time. Making sure to maintain eye contact with everyone in the group, including the person with disability, ensures that that everyone is a part of the conversation and helps to create an inclusive interaction.


Don’t use abstract language or concepts
Avoid using metaphors, puns, or idioms when speaking with someone who has an intellectual disability. People with intellectual disability can have trouble following abstract thoughts or ideas, so be mindful to keep sentences sort and simple.

Don’t raise your voice or shout
While a person with an intellectual disability may also have impaired hearing, raising your voice does not help. This may communicate frustration, anger or worse – you may come across as demeaning and offensive.

Don’t misuse the word ‘inspirational’
Calling a person with a disability ‘inspirational’ simply for living their life is patronising. You wouldn’t refer to a person without a disability as ‘inspirational’ unless they have achieved something truly extraordinary – the same rules apply for people living with disability.

If you are looking for more information or services to help you or someone you support, get in touch with our team below.

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