8 Tips for Communicating with a Patient Who Has a Disability

SUMMARY: As a health care provider, you may be unsure about how to interact with patients who have disabilities. This article offers easy-to-follow tips that you can put into place today to strengthen excellent patient care.

In a health care setting, a good relationship between the clinician and the patient is essential. A good relationship supports the clinician’s ability to successfully diagnose and treat problems, and to care for the patient. Respectful communication with and about the patient helps to ensure that the patient is fully heard, understood, and informed.

If the patient has a disability, that disability may play a role in this relationship. Even if a health care professional is familiar with a particular type of disability, every individual’s experience of their disability and related needs is unique. Also, a patient with a disability may want help with documenting a disability-related accommodation need, a task that requires clear and effective communication.

Here are eight of our favorite tips for how a health care provider can create a positive interaction:

  • Treat adults as adults; they are people first.
  • Address the individual, not their companion or interpreter.
  • Listen and let the patient share how they best communicate, what their needs are, and how they wished to be addressed. If you aren’t sure, use person-first language unless the patient specifies otherwise. Examples of person-first language are “a woman with multiple sclerosis,” and “a man who is blind.” (In contrast, do not say “a multiple-sclerosis patient” or “a blind man.”)
  • If the patient brings a service animal, do not distract it by petting it or talking to it—the service animal is on-the-job and needs to focus on the patient.
  • Recognize that the patient may see their disability as a part of their self-identity.
  • Avoid making assumptions about what a person can and cannot do.
  • Do not assume that the patient experiences their disability the same way that you do or would.
  • If you think the patient may need help with something like opening a door, transferring onto medical equipment, completing paperwork, or dressing, offer assistance. If your help is accepted, follow the lead of the individual.

Following these tips will go a long way with enhancing your communications with patients who have disabilities.

Health care providers also have obligations in relation to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Be sure to read other articles related to health care on this site to learn more. 

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