He Said/She Nodded: 7 Tips For Better Communication For People With Disabilities - The Mobility Resource


When I first met my husband, Barton, he was in Tucson, finishing his last year at The University of Arizona, and I was working in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Needless to say, we spent hours on the phone talking, which took quite a bit of finagling.

Our first few conversations, when Barton’s slurred speech from Cerebral Palsy hung syllables together over garbled phone lines, I asked “what” many times over, pressing my ear into the receiver. 

And, admittedly, when I just didn’t have the heart to ask one more time, I would say I understood when I actually had no idea what Barton was talking about. In these times, I would pretend I understood by answering a different question, using the “uh-huh” nod, or even start a completely new conversation.

In person, I might nod my head in agreement, but fumble as to how I was supposed to respond.

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Barton knew when my “uh-huh”s were to gloss over the embarassament of not understanding his speech. And he was tactical in saying the same thing in a different way so I would catch on.

We’ve been married for over ten years now, and I understand Barton’s accent about 95 percent of the time, and as any husband and wife partnership, we know each other so well, we can finish each other’s sentences. But when we have a disagreement, I comprehend maybe 5 percent. At first, I would blame Barton for the misunderstanding, but then, I realized he wasn’t speaking any differently. I was too caught up in my own agenda and ego to listen to what the other had to say. 

Hang ups in communication is one of the most innate and complicated aspects of living with someone with a disability, speech impediment or not.

Communicating wants and needs autonomously from partners, direct support staff, or other caregivers can be extremely frustrating. In my own experience, this came the first time we put together Barton’s specialized walker. As with any Type A personality, I laid out parts in an organized fashion across the floor, directions in hand, while Barton threw out half the pieces without even looking at them.

How can we communicate more efficiently? There is no one way, and no right way, but there are some tips that can lead to greater understanding.

1. Slowing Down

When we are in a hurry is when I have the hardest time listening to my husband. Ironically, in our fast-paced culture, slowing down, allowing time for communication, processing, and response is an extremely beneficial tool. Slowing down involves an incredible amount of patience, all around. Yet, it offers the time needed for mutual understanding.

2. Ask Again

It’s okay, it really is. If you don’t understand, give yourself permission to ask again. Instead of putting on a pretense or glossing over, let go of the expectation that you have to be perfect. Let the person you are speaking with know that you are having a hard time understanding, and ask if you can communicate in a different way.

3. Creating Your Own Language

Whether using a combination of hand gestures, eye blinks, words, or non-verbal cues, creating an individualized language provides a mutual foundation that each person can build upon, and this process happens over time.

4. Checking In

When I get excited, I can’t stop talking, and my voice rises. When Barton is animated, there is a physical reaction as well as a verbal one. Yet, in each case, sometimes it’s unclear whether we are excited or upset. Asking and checking in gives a moment for clarity.

5. Offering Space

Both Barton and I are incredibly determined, and stubborn, and when we are flowing together, we are a powerful duo. Yet, when misunderstandings arise or we have a difference of opinion, our tempers can get the best of us. Giving each other a break and some space not only allows us time to process, but also honors the other person’s needs by providing them space as well.

6. Steeping in the Present

Listening on a deeper level takes focus, concentration and the ability to let go of distractions. It takes us profoundly into the present moment. We stop thinking of the list of things to do, the emails that have to be answered, or the project we need to finish. In this way, listening requires us to be fully present and bringing our whole selves to the table. What distractions do you need to let go of?

7. Caution Using Translators

When people don’t understand Barton, they turn and look to me for guidance. However, using a translator has caveats. As Barton’s spouse, I have stopped translating every word when we realized that people were ignoring Barton all together and solely paying attention to me. I interrupted the ability for two people to connect, and now, we navigate each experience in the moment.

Mind you, if I do translate, it’s hardly every word and is only the essence. We are both writers, and Barton’s soliloquies fall off his rolled tongue, where my mind can only repeat a few words at a time.

Now, as national speakers in leadership, Barton and I often play with how much I translate and how much we let others grasp Barton’s unique accent. Typically, in the beginning of a speech, we acknowledge the difficulty of understanding and invite the audience to listen in a different way.

Even ten year’s later, every now and again, we will each drift into selective listening, needing the opportunity to stop and reset for fuller clarity.

And when we don’t quite get it right, we look at each other and laugh, the basis of any successful marriage.

Photography credit: Greg Whitt

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