Skip to main content

Talk to Handicapped Children and Adults- They Won’t Bite

Rose Mary has been an Occupational Therapist since 1987. She has treated children and adults with a wide array of conditions.

First of all, none of my hubs on Disabilities are about what the current, politically correct designation is for people with disabilities or handicaps.  The designations “Children with Special Needs”, “Differently Abled”, and “Handi-capable” are preferred by some.  The designation is not my point, and to share my point, readers must find me.  I chose “handicapped” because people are searching for this term, but the returns in Google search are in the one to three million range, not 40 to 55 million range as for “special needs”.  If I get lost in the returns and never get read, I have no point, right? 

So on to my point, which is about communicating with handicapped children and adults.  Having been assigned twice to Wilford Hall Medical Center, the U.S. Air Force’s largest hospital, and being a rehab therapist, I have encountered countless handicapped people.  I’ve also witnessed thousands of interactions between handicapped individuals and the rest of us.  It seems that many people are reluctant, or too uncomfortable to talk to handicapped people. 

Former roller derby player, with spinal cord injury

Former roller derby player, with spinal cord injury

As an occupational therapist, I am quite comfortable talking to people with disabilities.  I have been on many pediatric interdisciplinary teams, for clinics such as Spina Bifida, Spasticity and Premie Follow-up.  Parents have occasionally commented, “We can always tell which of you are the therapists, because you always greet our child.”  I guess the docs tend to come in and get straight to business, asking parents questions. 

Of course, when I am walking down the halls of my facility, I don’t have a sign that says “OT- I’m one of the good guys”.  I tend to make eye contact and greet someone in a wheelchair the same way I would anyone else I encounter in the halls.  They however often seem oblivious.  From my perspective, I think that handicapped adults are accustomed to being ignored, or carefully avoided. 


People with Disabilities are Used to Being Ignored

When I was in OT school, we had to spend a half day in a wheelchair.  This sort of project is common for occupational therapy students.  We worked in pairs.  Some of our classmates decided to just stay at school.  My partner and I decided to go to a restaurant for lunch.  I was in the chair.  I went to the restroom, and there were other women in there.  I was at the sink counter, and a woman came out of a stall.  She saw me, immediately looked away, then turned around and left the restroom without washing her hands!  It’s not like I was blocking the only sink.  There was more than one sink in the restroom. 

We also went to the Medical University Library.  Just a routine “need to go to the library”, only difference being that it happened to be on our wheelchair day.  The library is filled with medical, dental, nursing, pharmacy, PT, OT and other health care students.  No one would make eye contact here either!  It was surprising in the restaurant.  It was shocking in an environment of future health care professionals!  So this experience is my basis for saying that handicapped people are used to being ignored. 

I encourage you to attempt to make eye contact, and greet people with disabilities when you encounter them.  If you are meeting them, going different directions, this is nothing more than “Hello.” or “Good morning.”  If they aren’t making eye contact as you approach, so what.  Greet them anyway.  It may give them encouragement that not everyone is a bozo, and that they are not totally invisible. 

If you’re in a dentist waiting room, at the grocery store, or some other public place, you may strike up a pleasant conversation.  Not that you will know what a person’s disability is, but if the person is alone without a caregiver, they are mentally capable to do so.  If you encounter someone with a spinal cord injury for example, most likely nothing is wrong with their brain.  They can carry on a normal conversation. 


It’s Not About You- Try Not to be Anxious

When I was in my early 20s, one of my cousins who I will call Sonya, made a rare appearance at a family dinner, with her teenage daughter who I will call Penny.  Penny had suffered a head injury in a car accident.  I remember being anxious about talking to her.  What if I can’t understand her?  It will be awkward for me, and will likely make Penny feel bad.  Ultimately I realized that she spoke slowly and with low volume, but otherwise her articulation and language skills were normal.  This was a lesson for me later:  Don’t make it about me.  Don’t let my own anxiety get in the way of communicating with someone.  I extended this to talking to people who spoke English as a second language too.  Don’t psych yourself out, and assume that you won’t be able to understand. 

During my first assignment to Wilford Hall 10 years ago, I got a referral on a woman my age, who had athetoid cerebral palsy.  This is a relatively rare condition.  It is common for those with athetoid CP to have severe impairment to motor function, almost always unable to walk, and often unable to coordinate speech.  They also usually have normal or higher intelligence.  My client, whom I’ll call Renata, could speak, but it would be considered by most to be very difficult to understand.  Using my approach to set my own anxiety aside, I found that I had no difficulty whatsoever understanding her conversational speech.  It was only when I had to ask about her medical history that her father had to answer and clarify. 

When I was re-assigned to Wilford Hall 5 years ago, I ran into Renata at the mall.  She had an augmentative communication device, but we didn’t need it.  Because of her motor control difficulty, it is very slow using the device, and we didn’t need it because I could understand her.  Only once or twice did I have to say, “I didn’t quite get that.  Say it again.” 

I encourage you to take a chance and start a conversation with a handicapped child or adult.  You may find them to be no different than anyone else you might casually converse with in a dentist office, the mall, or other public place.  If their speech or intellect is impaired, try to hear past your anxiousness.  If you can’t understand them, maybe a caregiver will “translate”.  If they do, then make your next comment back to the person, not the caregiver.  If no one interprets for you, and you can’t understand the handicapped person, you could say, “I’m sorry I couldn’t understand you, but you have a good day.  Good evening.” 

Talk to the Age Level of the Person with Disabilities, No Baby Talk

There was another client who dropped by my clinic from time to time with her mother.  I’ll call them Amelia and Cathy.  Amelia was about 12 years old, and had spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy.  This means that she had brain damage that caused her muscle tone to be very tight in her arms and legs, and she could not walk. 

Because the abnormalities in muscle tone are also present internally, she could not easily eat in a way that was energy efficient.  Because of her brain damage, she also did not protect her airway for swallowing safely.  Therefore  she was fed through a feeding tube. 

Amelia was not verbal, meaning she did not communicate with words, but she was vocal, and could laugh and make other noises.  She had been assessed to be severely, profoundly mentally retarded.  I asked Cathy what her personal assessment was for Amelia’s mental level.  She stated she thought Amelia responded like a 9 to 12 month old. 

Over the course of time, I had many visits from Amelia and Cathy.  One day when Cathy and I were talking, Amelia laughed.  Many handicapped children laugh randomly.  It’s their way of being social, maybe saying ‘I enjoy your attention.  Keep it coming.’  This was different though.  In that moment, I knew Amelia was laughing appropriately at a funny remark I had made.  And that it had happened before.  Stunned and excited, I said to Cathy, “She laughed at my joke!  She understood that humor!”  Cathy agreed, and said, “Oh yeah, she does that all the time.  She thinks Dad is a riot.”  Still excited, I said “Cathy, that is not 9 to 12 month old sense of humor!  That was a much higher level!” 

Scroll to Continue

Augmentative Communication

I had already arranged for Amelia to have an augmentative communication evaluation.  Fortunately military Tricare didn’t bat a lash at paying for the evaluation, and luckily we had a very experienced provider in San Antonio to see Amelia.  I felt at the time that Amelia was very low functioning, and may not be able to communicate, even with the help of technology, but after all, that was not my specialty.  I also felt that since she had never been evaluated for this before, she should be given the chance to see.  Some devices are very simple, merely selecting between two choices, or indicating yes or no.  Cathy said, “I know when she’s feeling bad.  I just wish I knew what hurt.” 

The therapist determined that Amelia would be able to use one of several devices.  This was great news.  The bad news was that Tricare would not pay for the device.  Several years later, Amelia got her device.  There is a very good benefits program in Texas, but unfortunately the waiting list is years.  Once you’re in the program, it opens up a whole new world.  Unfortunately, I never got to see Amelia use her device before I moved on to my next duty station.  Cathy related that the therapist said Amelia had advanced beyond the level of her initial evaluation, and would need a more sophisticated augmentative communication device.  In the therapy clinic she used a programmed device and had a “conversation” with the therapist.  She was asked what she was doing after therapy, and she said “go to WalMart”.  The therapist asked what she would do at WalMart, and Amelia responded “greet the people.” 

So if you meet a child like Amelia, who cannot speak in words and sentences, in a wheelchair accompanied by a parent, obviously you wouldn’t try to talk to them about sports.  And they may be mentally like a baby.  But they may be mentally like a young child, or the tween of their chronological age.  You could make polite conversation, like “How are you today?  Are you enjoying the nice weather?” 

Don’t Be Afraid-- Talk to Handicapped Children and Adults

So the next time you encounter a handicapped child or handicapped adult, try to treat them like you would treat anyone else.  Don’t be patronizing.  Don’t talk baby talk.  Try not to be anxious.  If you pass them in a hall, or on a sidewalk, attempt to make eye contact and just say “hello”.  If you are both in the same public place, like waiting in the grocery line, or waiting in a waiting room, try to make normal conversation, like you would with any other person that age. 

I dedicate this hub to the many handicapped and handicapable children and adults that I have known over the years.  Also I honor Cari Jean and her beautiful daughter Faith


Thanks for Reading!

rmcrayne (author) from San Antonio Texas on January 05, 2016:

Thanks Chantelle for reading and commenting. Sorry your son has to experience this phenomena. Humans :-/

Chantelle Porter from Ann Arbor on January 05, 2016:

What a wonderful article. I cannot tell you how many times we have been at organized function where most people just look through my son as of he wasn't even there. Just because he doesn't speak in a way that's easy to get at first doesn't mean he doesn't want to be part of the group. We have so much farther to go to help the handicapped.

Michelle Wade from Georgia on June 10, 2015:

I am not at all handicapped but I do have a disability. I say I am not handicapped because I can do just like you can but I do things a little differently. Well in those few situations when I have to tell someone of my situation, they look at me like I'm from a Planet Lucratane or something, and they limit socialization to a minimum of when they need something or want something

Dennis Thorgesen from Beatrice, Nebraska U.S. on December 27, 2014:

When I lost my memory all my abilities went with it. There was no speech, no reading, or writing, all had been lost. My mother told me it was as if I was her baby again. When this happened I was in my early 40's. One thing that was not taken was the ability to learn.

If not for my wife, father, and mother my life most likely would be very different today. I was already wheelchair bound when I lost my memory. There was total paralysis from the waist down caused by three crushed discs. Had they not seen the potential of learning again I might have been like so many others of the day. In those days they locked people who weren't "normal" away.

Most of my memories did return nine years after the accident. Today I run a business that I started on my own. One thing I found is I can really throw people off guard by making eye contact and greeting them first.

Lynsey Hart from Lanarkshire on March 29, 2014:

That is rather unfortunate... Again goes to prove some peoples ignorance- npt many people will give a second thought to the awkward moment earlier in the day, and will dismiss it as insignificant, not realising the impact it has on the recipient....

rmcrayne (author) from San Antonio Texas on March 28, 2014:

Thanks so much sparkley. I can see by your comment you get what I was trying to say. Unfortunately this hub and my other related topics have gotten very little traffic.

Lynsey Hart from Lanarkshire on March 27, 2014:

This is a great hub, and it really highlights the fact that people let their social awkwardness make others feel quite crap at times. I remember when I was a child, and I'd ask my mum what was wrong with a certain person- she always said it was rude to talk about them, and said I should talk to them. I always had a positive experience, as none of these people shied away from the curious questions of a child, and always took time to explain and it really has reflected in my adult life.

I can have conversations freely with people from all walks of life, and I don't like to think of people as disabled or handicapped- I usually use the term of just people. Why should one aspect of a person be their label? Voted up, useful and interesting, and I hope enough people find this and start saying hello more often!

rmcrayne (author) from San Antonio Texas on December 16, 2011:

Thanks for reading and commenting Debby. Wouldn't it be great if medical students and other health care students had to take a class about the interpersonal skills for communicating with patients, including handicapped clients?

Debby Bruck on December 15, 2011:

Dear Rose Mary ~ I gave this hub "beautiful" for the way you portrayed the handicapped as capable in so many ways and the most important lesson, "It's not about you." Helping people be more human through your writings her on Hubpages, I highly recommend everyone learn something from your experience as an occupational therapist. Wouldn't it be great if kids in school could take a class where they learned how to approach other people, handicapped and non-handicapped. Blessings, Debby

rmcrayne (author) from San Antonio Texas on January 06, 2011:

Reynold Jay, if you're working toward a print publication, or otherwise looking for great honest feedback, join your nearest Writers' Guild. The feedback can be brutal, but the nice stuff doesn't grow us much.

Reynold Jay from Saginaw, Michigan on January 02, 2011:

I'm also going to place a readers note in the book that will indicate a time shift. My characters from an encompassing series need to appear in a time that varies a bit. This will set the reader at ease with the narrative. It is discomforting reads by readers like you that help me to get it right. RJ

rmcrayne (author) from San Antonio Texas on January 01, 2011:

You are very gracious Reynold Jay. I'm glad you took my comments in the helpful spirit in which they were intended.

Reynold Jay from Saginaw, Michigan on December 23, 2010:

I decided to set the year as 1983 for the purposes of the short story. "Mongoloid" is gone too. Your input is most valued and makes the writing more accurate and vastly better. A big thank you.

Reynold Jay from Saginaw, Michigan on December 23, 2010:

Yes, the timeline is a bit off. Consider that it actually took place in 1985 and her story began around 1975. The problem with getting her son enrolled was primarily the fault of the school district which did not (apparently) know that they were covered by a thirteen districk program. She was in poverty, divorced, living with her mother, frightened and scared and not a fully functional person. The result was this incredible tale. RJ

rmcrayne (author) from San Antonio Texas on December 22, 2010:

Thanks for reading and commenting Reynold Jay. I was working in the DoDDS schools overseas during the time frame of your "Chat". In doing so, I became aware of school systems all over the US (that our students came from, or returned to). I'm so sorry to say I don't find your story plausible for 1995. It may be more believable if you said it was 1965.

Reynold Jay from Saginaw, Michigan on December 19, 2010:

Thanks for a great Hub with advice from a professional. I worked as a Special ed teacher for 33 years and have posted a few short short stories about my experiences this week . A big one is coming up in a few days called "A Chat with Mrs. Hausley" that should be an eye opener for everyone and I'm excited about getting it polished and published.

rmcrayne (author) from San Antonio Texas on May 17, 2010:

ethel, Elle, Madison, terri, and Pamela, thanks for your great comments.

rmcrayne (author) from San Antonio Texas on May 17, 2010:

Fits4life, I like what you said about heros and overcomers.

Hello again nasus!

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on May 16, 2010:

This is a well written hub that makes some very pertinent points. As a nurse I have worked with handicapped people many times and they appreciate being treated as normal as possible and certainly no one wants to be talked down to. Thumbs up!

terrioneill on May 13, 2010:

Wonderfully written. My daughter has cerebral palsy and is blind. We encounter this often, along with unthinkable comments and questions.

Madison from NYC on May 13, 2010:

Excellent hub! I especially appreciated reading your views on "It’s Not About You- Try Not to be Anxious." Thank you for sharing on such an important topic.


Elle Evette on May 13, 2010:

This was really terrific to read. I try to be conscious of people who are differently-abled and greet, smile or make normal conversation with them like I would with any able-bodied person. We as human beings really have a great amount of power to make or ruin someone's day, so why not do our best to be a positive force.

Ethel Smith from Kingston-Upon-Hull on May 13, 2010:

You are so right. It is often about us and not the person. It can be difficult at first. Many people fear that they might intrude or offend. However I agree with you-go for it.

nasus loops from Fenland on May 12, 2010:

I totally agree with you rmcrayne. There should be courses available to help people learn how to deal with their own inadequacies when in the company of some very nice and sometimes intelligent individuals. Lets face it anybody can be put in a wheelchair.

Cherri Brown-Jett from Richmond on May 12, 2010:

This is a great hub. Often what a person is lacking in areas of life are made up with abundance in other areas. Most people that are handicap are true miracles and blessed to even be alive. Most are my heros because they are overcomers. It is a reminder to be thankful for what we can do.

rmcrayne (author) from San Antonio Texas on May 12, 2010:

Thanks for your support Paradise. “Hub Buddies” like you make me braver for those times when I step out on a limb.

Sandy, I agree, I think some people just freeze up.

rmcrayne (author) from San Antonio Texas on May 12, 2010:

Thanks for reading DiamondRN. I’ve seen some of the young troops be apathetic toward the elderly. They think they will never become old and dependent on others I guess.

rmcrayne (author) from San Antonio Texas on May 12, 2010:

Thanks for reading nasus. It is amazing that medical communities don’t set a better example. Unfortunately you can study for most any profession without having basic social competencies. We should take a course or have to pass an exam.

rmcrayne (author) from San Antonio Texas on May 12, 2010:

jen, has your nephew ever been evaluated for augmentative communication? The Walmart shopper disgusts me. I wish I could tell you that I never heard a story like that before, but a couple of families have told me similar stories.

rmcrayne (author) from San Antonio Texas on May 12, 2010:

Thanks zzron. I agree that all of us have some type of shortcoming, and none of us are perfect. My version is ‘we’re all crazy in our own special way’. And none of us are loved because we are perfect.

Sandy Mertens from Wisconsin, USA on May 12, 2010:

Good hub. I Know people who seem to look down at the handicap.

Maybe they are at afraid of what to say. We must respect everyone.

Paradise7 from Upstate New York on May 12, 2010:

What a terrific hub! I'm with you all the way on this one. Thank you.

Bob Diamond RPh from Charlotte, NC USA on May 12, 2010:

As an empathetic pharmacist I have seen and felt lot of pain over the years. I have never regretted the extra time it takes to make contact with the people like you mention in your article. I have also found out that very old people like being called by their first names.

nasus loops from Fenland on May 11, 2010:

This is a great hub.

I work in a Doctors surgery and like yourself see many people with varying disabilities, and even in this enviroment it still amazes me how many people struggle to talk to a disabled person.

People always seem to shout at a deaf person instead of just talking clearly, after all if they are deaf they are still not going to hear you if you shout, but most can lip read.

People in wheelchairs seem to be talked down to just because they sit lower than we do. It is wrong to do this and really not that difficult to talk to these people like the normal human beings that they are.

Jen King from Wyandotte Michigan on May 11, 2010:

My nephew has CP. Sometimes I dream that he and I are having a conversation. Nothing deep and significant, just - hey, how's the weather and what would you like for lunch? lol

I wake up thinking it was a memory, not a dream. But just for a quick minute. If I'm this frustrated, wanting to know what he would say to me, I can't imagine his own frustration, wanting to say it.

At Walmart, my sister was told by a fellow shopper that she had no business bringing him out to a public place. Thanks so much for this hub, rm. It is difficult to tell the difference between somebody who is judging you, and somebody who is merely uncomfortable and awkward - which is usually the case.

A smile does not cost a thing, does it?

zzron from Houston, TX. on May 11, 2010:

This is a really awesome hub. I used to work with physically handicapped adults years ago, and did some volunteer work at the Richmond state school in Richmond, Texas. I also had a very good friend who had polio most of his life and walked with a leg brace who passed away about 10 years ago. You are absolutely right, these are people just like you and I. Everyone has a disability or shortcoming to some degree. No one is perfect. Thank you so much for addressing this subject.

Related Articles