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Effectively Communicating with Clients with Disabilities

Service dog trainers need to be able to communicate effectively with their clients. Whether they are interacting with someone who has a sensory disability, a mobility disability, a cognitive disability or a mental illness, effective communication is essential. Here are some tips to consider when speaking with individuals with disabilities.

Direct Interaction and Eye Contact

Remember, you’re communicating with the individual, not their assistant or interpreter. Make eye contact and face towards your client, the person with the disability, when you speak to them. This detail is even more important when communicating with individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing. If an interpreter is present, look at the person, not their interpreter, while speaking. Similarly, if the person has a personal care assistant, speak directly to your client, the person with the disability.

When speaking to a person who uses adaptive equipment like a wheelchair or scooter, sit so you can communicate at eye level.

Address adults as adults. Do not speak to an adult with a disability as though the person is a child.

Clarifying Communication

It is tempting to simply repeat yourself louder if you are misunderstood. However, that approach is not as helpful as rephrasing. Written communication tools such as smart phone apps that live-caption communication, texts, notepads and whiteboards may also facilitate understanding.

Consider learning fingerspelling or a few phrases in American Sign Language or British Sign Language. Meaningful gestures can also enhance understanding.

Additional Time

Some people with disabilities may need more time to express themselves. People with mental illness or with disabilities that affect their learning or thinking may need additional time to put their thoughts into words. People with speech disabilities may also need more time to communicate.

Avoid interrupting and do not complete the person’s sentences.

Do not pretend to understand when you do not. For some clients, questions that require yes or no answers may be helpful.

Communicating with Clients Who are Blind or Who Have Low Vision

When speaking to someone who is blind or has low vision, identify yourself. Verbally describe relevant information; for example, “there is someone about 100 feet in front of you with a leashed dog.” Additionally, be sure to let the person know before concluding and leaving the conversation.

Customized Approaches

There is no universal solution for all accommodations. Different strategies will be needed for different clients, even if clients have the same diagnosis. Collaborate with your client if you encounter difficulties in finding strategies that work best for them.


United Spinal Association’s Disability Etiquette Guide: Tips on Interacting Respectfully with People with Disabilities

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About the Pet Professional Guild (PPG) Assistance Animal Division

Our volunteer committee includes a broad representation of pet professionals with a variety of skills and interests specific to assistance animals. We invite individuals and professional organizations interested in training, working with, and receiving support from animals who assist people in different ways to join PPG. Pet guardians can join for free.

We look forward to welcoming you into an inclusive group that prioritizes humane treatment and welfare of both people and assistance animals!

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