Disclaimer: Some articles I have read on this topic previously have claimed that they don’t like the use of the term “disabled person”. I, as someone who lives with a disability, think the term “disabled person” accurately describes me. The people around me who have a condition that falls under “special needs” have told me they have no issue being described as a “special needs person”. Please do not be offended if these phrases are not what you prefer.
Humans are very social creatures. Our brains are wired with the need to communicate and connect with others. Even when traditional communication isn’t an option, we as humans have figured out ways to get around this (by using tools such as sign language and digital technology) to appease our social needs. Whilst communicating with others, everybody deserves to feel like they’re being treated with respect. This is especially important for people who live with disabilities and/or special needs, as living with a disability or special needs can often lead to feelings of social isolation.
These feelings of social isolation are only made worse when disabled and/or special needs people are spoken to or treated in a disrespectful way. An example of this is when a disabled and/or special needs person is spoken to by someone using a “baby voice”, named so as it is very similar in fashion to the way we speak to babies (in a high pitched, exaggerated manner). It isn’t just disabled and/or special needs children that experience this, it isn’t uncommon for adults to experience this as well!
My inspiration to write this article
While I was spoken to in this fashion many times as a child, I cannot recall a time that this has happened to me within the last few years, thank goodness. This may be because I’m so used to being stared at while using my walking cane that my facial expression often settles into a “don’t mess with me” look when I’m out in public.
My 12-year-old brother, however, told me about how he was spoken to in a “baby” like manner last week and how it upset him. Hearing my younger brother talk about how he doesn’t like being spoken to like he’s, in his own words, “stupid”, made me hurt inside. I’ve faced a lot of discrimination growing up with a disability, and I hate to see my younger brothers go through the same thing.
My brother’s experience led me to also think about my own experiences, plus the experiences of those around me. I’m hoping that my efforts to raise awareness regarding disabilities will protect my brothers from going through what I have, though I know that isn’t possible.
I remember caregivers, people who were supposed to be aware of how to treat people, talking to me in a way that I found to be so incredibly patronising. It upset me and made me feel less valid. It made me feel less intelligent and able than I actually was. There are many reasons as to why communicating this way with disabled and/or special needs people is harmful, and in this article, I will address some of these reasons.
I can hear fine
Just because someone is disabled or has trouble communicating doesn’t mean they can’t understand you. I find that this is an assumption that many people (who are inexperienced with communicating with disabled and/or special needs people) make. This snap-judgement is extremely flawed. Looking at someone and assuming they can’t understand you, for whatever reason, is very judgemental and will often lead you to the wrong conclusion.
My brother, for example, has symptoms that mean he is in and out of a wheelchair. He experiences symptoms such as pain and fatigue that make it difficult for him to stand for long periods, so he sometimes uses his wheelchair when out and about. He’s a very smart boy, loves to read, and almost never stops talking if he’s feeling comfortable. However, he’s noticed that when he’s in his wheelchair he gets a lot of stares, as well as getting talked to in a “baby voice” by people that don’t know him well. He then shocks these people when he concisely informs them that he is perfectly capable of understanding speech that is in a normal tone and volume.
If you’re worried you aren’t being understood by someone with a disability and/or special needs, take your cues from them. Instead of assuming their level of comprehension before you even speak to them, introduce yourself as you would with anyone else. If it is then made clear that they aren’t understanding you, an alteration in speech patterns or word use may be beneficial depending on their needs.
Talk to me like a human being
It’s patronising, talking to someone in a fashion that is slower, higher-pitched, or louder than what is required implies that the person does not have the capacity to understand you. If someone has communication difficulties, that does not necessarily mean they can’t understand you, even if they have trouble replying. And if they don’t have communication issues, then they have absolutely no issue understanding or replying to you. A great rule of thumb is to speak to disabled and/or special needs people like you would speak to anyone else their age. Don’t alter your tone of voice prematurely. As said above, take your cues from the person you are communicating with.
Another patronising method of communication that can occur to special needs and/or disabled people is people not speaking directly to them, but rather to their parent, support person, or caregiver. After years of bad experiences with the medical profession, I usually take my mother with me to appointments as my support person. I’ve noticed that some medical professionals will speak to my mother instead of me, asking her questions about my health (that I’m perfectly capable of answering) and looking directly at her when giving us information (that I’m perfectly capable of understanding). This also happens to my 12-year-old brother, even though he is perfectly capable of speaking for himself.
While scientists have determined that speaking to babies in an overly exaggerated manner (also known as “baby voice”) is beneficial to their development, there are no such benefits for people with a disability and/or special needs. I long for a world where people aren’t treated differently due to their level of ability, though I know that for now trying to raise awareness will have to do.
Amy Clements is a 19-year-old who has lived with chronic pain, the result of Fibromyalgia, since childhood. In her teens she was diagnosed with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome in her wrist, which was the result of a netball injury. Amy lives in New Zealand and studies Business part-time at University. She enjoys reading novels and writing. She especially enjoys writing about her experience with chronic illness.