12 ways to make your community more communication accessible

7 minute read | May 9, 2019

Make your community more accessible to people with communication disabilities. There are simple strategies that support all people to access your business and service easily.

People with communication disabilities have the same needs, desires, and rights to participate in their community as everyone else. However, they face barriers trying to participate in everything, from public meetings to renewing a driver's license to explaining their symptoms to a doctor. They may avoid going out because they can't order food or a taxi. They may struggle to participate in their faith, community, craft group, or civic club.

Watch Lost Voice Guy experience stopping at a coffee shop for some insight.

Make your business accessible for all

Communication barriers are often overlooked. However, they may affect a potential customer, volunteer, or client who is unable to rely on speech. With simple strategies, you will be able to make your business or organization not only accessible for people with communication disabilities, but also for visitors who don't speak your language.

What does a communication disability look like?

Most people with communication disabilities can understand everything you say, but may not be able to communicate back with speech. Some people with communication disabilities may also find it difficult to understand you. They may struggle to access your visual materials, like signage and menus. Finally, speech impediments or difficulties mean you might not be able to understand them properly.

Some people with communication disabilities use communication tools or devices. They may type messages or tap pictures to talk to you. These tools can be called Augmentative and Alternative Communication, or AAC, for short.

Dominick types on his ipad to communicate
Dominick types on his iPad to communicate.

12 simple tips to remove communication barriers

These guidelines are practical and easy to implement for any business owner or organization to support and include people with communication difficulties.

1. Listen

Good listening removes many barriers. Many people with communication disabilities are very strategic with gestures and other cues to help express their message. Watch all the other cues the person is giving you to help you understand them. If they use a communication tool to say a message, listen carefully to the voice from their system.

2. Remove physical barriers

Particularly if they use a wheelchair. Ask if you can move to a quieter spot or a place where you can both be sitting.

3. Just ask

Most people with communication disabilities are used to telling others how to support and include them. Ask if:

  • it would be helpful for you to write their choices or options.
  • you need them to repeat their message.
  • you can see the screen that displays the message on their technology.
  • you can write down what you think they are saying.
  • they would like assistance filling out a form or otherwise indicating their choices or sharing information.

4. Don’t fuss

Try not to exclaim over their communication system. The other person’s communication technology may be novel and exciting to you. To them, it is simply how they communicate. You can research and learn more about communication technology after you have finished serving this person. Don’t let your curiosity about their technology interfere with your ability to listen.

5. Trust and respect your customer

If the person tells you they understand everything you say, take them at their word and speak as you would to anyone else. Do not use a louder, high-pitched or baby-talk voice with anyone who has a communication disability.

6. Speak directly to the person with the communication disability

If they are with a speaking person, ask the person with a communication disability if the other person will assist them with communication. Watch the person who is communicating, not their assistant or companion. Even if their companion answers for them, direct questions about them directly at the person, not their assistant.

7. Slow down.

The rapid pace of speech is a huge barrier to communication. Many communication barriers can be removed just by taking more time. Take time to listen to the person. If they appear to have trouble understanding you, pause more between sentences.

8. Use clear language in spoken and written information

Avoid jargon or fancy terms. Have a menu or list of options that explains each item in plain language. Another tip: use simple fonts and larger print.

Coffee mocha sign with simple language
Coffee sign is best with simple language.

9. Use visuals

Pictures, graphics, and maps of your products or services can all help clarify your message and support the other person to communicate. Display photographs or graphics with each description so that people can point at the option they want.

Some customers or clients are unable to use their hands to point with precision at signs on the wall. Have a portable visual menu, on a clipboard. Ask if you can explain anything, if you can hold the menu for them, or if you can read anything aloud for them.

10. Watch for signs of confusion and clarify or repeat

Signs that a person is struggling to understand include:

  • they appear confused,
  • they look frustrated,
  • they just shrug their shoulders,
  • they do not respond,
  • they respond in a way that does not make sense,
  • or they simply agree with everything you say.

11. Repeat and verify

Check in to make sure you both understood each other. Restate what you understand so that the other person can verify or correct you.

12. Arrange alternate ways to communicate

Consider digital tools as alternative ways to share information and communicate with people.

For example, creating a visual and/or online order form for a cafe will make it possible for anyone to order ahead while providing a more accessible way for a person with a communication disability to order food.

Make all forms available electronically.

Use video conferencing to enhance access to live meetings.

Use QR codes for documents; making it easier to give access to different links and materials.

QR code with a llink to the website of AssistiveWare
An example QR code with a link to the website of AssistiveWare
After Anna’s stroke, it was frustrating to go out with her daughter on their weekly lunches. She struggled to understand menus or indicate her choices, so had to settle for food that was not her first choice. Wait staff ignored her if her daughter spoke for her. One day, her daughter discovered a local restaurant with a menu with pictures of each food item. Anna could access this! The description of each dish was in plain language. Anna and her daughter have resumed their long tradition of a weekly lunch together.
Sara’s mother used to dread taking her daughter to the hair salon. Sara has beautiful curls, but she was afraid of the scissors and blow dryer, and she struggled to indicate how she might want her hair to be cut. The stylist made some cheat-sheets to support clients like Sara. These handouts had a photo of each tool and what it does. She made visuals of a variety of styles for different hair types and lengths. Now, Sara is much less anxious and she can select her own hair style.

Communication Accessible

Follow these steps to make your business or organization accessible for people with communication difficulties.

Links and References