Visiting a newly disabled friend:
How to ensure a positive interaction
By Lisa M. Petsche
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Spending time with a friend or relative with an acquired disability – such as a speech disorder or mobility impairment from a stroke – can be awkward at first. You may not know what to say or do.
The following guide can help to ensure a positive visit.
- Choose subjects of special interest, to motivate the person in case they are self-conscious about engaging in conversation.
- Encourage them to slow down if necessary, in order to pronounce each syllable.
- Be patient and remain calm, allowing extra time for the person to get their words out. Don't interrupt or try to finish sentences unless they become visibly frustrated.
- Be attuned to non-verbal language that can give clues to the factual or emotional content of the message.
- Summarize the message to check if you heard it right.
- Ask them to repeat or rephrase the message if you could not make it out. Don't pretend you understood.
- Ask questions that require a Yes or No answer so they can simply nod or shake their head.
- Don't correct every error.
- If the person is able to write, have a notepad and pen handy as a backup.
Keep in mind that your understanding of their speech will improve with repeated contact.
- Pick a location with good acoustics – rooms with carpeting and curtains are best.
- Choose a quiet area to minimize background noise.
- Limit the number of participants. One-to-one conversations are ideal.
- Ensure you have the person's full attention before initiating conversation. Sit close by, facing them.
- Sit with your face to the light and be careful not to cover it with your hands.
- Ask if one ear is better than the other, and speak to that side.
- Lean in when it's your turn to speak.
- Use a low-pitched, loud voice but avoid shouting. Speak slowly and clearly, but don't exaggerate.
- Be succinct about expressing yourself, and use short sentences.
- Read the person's non-verbal expressions, since some hearing-impaired people are hesitant to ask others to repeat themselves. If it looks as if they didn't pick up what you said, rephrase it.
- Let the person know when you are entering or leaving the room.
- Offer a hat or visor (to reduce glare) when accompanying them outdoors on a sunny day.
- When you're on an outing together, describe the view as you are driving, as well as any unfamiliar environments you enter. Ask what the person can and cannot see; don't make assumptions. If they are nervous about navigating in public, suggest they hold on to your elbow and walk half a step behind you (never grab their arm).
- When planning to eat out in a restaurant, choose a place with good lighting. Otherwise, offer to read the menu aloud.
- While visiting their home, leave doors fully open or closed, and put items back where they belong. Don't rearrange furniture or other possessions.
- Hosting tips: Before the person arrives at your home, ensure walkways are clear indoors and out. Turn on lights in relevant rooms, hallways and stairwells, as well as outdoors if it's past sunset. Minimize glare from reflective surfaces - for example, draw curtains or blinds on sunny days and place decorative cloths on glass tables. Employ color contrast to make objects easy to distinguish — for instance, use a dark tablecloth if you have light-colored dishes.
- Act natural with someone in a wheelchair. Don't treat them as if they are mentally impaired or as if their use of a wheelchair is something to be pitied. The chair is an aid that increases their mobility and, in many cases, independence.
- Keep in mind that the mobility of wheelchair users varies. Some can walk short distances while others don't have the necessary strength or balance. Others can walk a few steps, or at least stand long enough to do a pivot transfer, while others cannot bear weight. Some can self-propel, at least for short distances, while others cannot. It's important to become familiar with a particular wheelchair user's capabilities. Inquire if you're unsure.
- If you plan to talk with the person at length, pull up a chair to get on the same level.
- Treat the wheelchair as an extension of the person — don't lean on it, and ask permission before pushing it. Don't sit in the chair, either, without their consent.
- Be careful not to move the wheelchair out of the owner's reach; or, if you must, make sure you put it back. The same goes for other mobility aids, such as walkers and canes.
Lisa M. Petsche is a social worker and a freelance writer specializing in boomer and senior issues.