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Speaking to People with Disabilities

Paul Horn

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Following are the responses I received to my question: Does anyone have experience/tips for speaking to and/or offering presentation skills training for people with disabilities (partial vision, hearing, physical mobility)? Will appreciate any suggestions and resources.

-- Emily Kimball

I am a speaker who wears two hearing aids. I always ask to have either a portable hand mike or two standing mikes in the audience so that I can hear people's questions. (The audience can often hear, but I can't, depending on the size of the room).

I am testing out a gizmo at my next seminar that is supposed to help me hear questions better, but only for a small- to medium-sized room. The State Office of the Deaf is loaning it to me. They have many resources I have just discovered.

Sometimes I have the people relay the question up to me, and therefore they are helping me succeed and feel good.

-- Rebecca Everett

I'd be happy to talk with you about my wonderous experience working with Deaf Community Services here in San Diego. A few quick tips they shared with me:

  1. Don't hand out your handouts until the very end. The HI (Hearing impaired -- some prefer Deaf community) can't read and look at you and your interpreter simultaneously. They tend to gravitate toward the reading because it's less tiring.
  2. Don't ask rhetorical questions.
  3. Use small groups instead of duos. If you have a mix of hearing and non-hearing, each small group will either need an interpreter or the hearing people will have to be able to use sign.
  4. You have to wait at least 5 more beats in your pauses than normal for changes in topic, responses to humor and questions. This allows the audience to catch up with the interpreter.
  5. Best of all, spend some time with the interpreter before your program. Share your outline or handouts and explain lingo. Ask them if there are any words that don't translate well or have dual meanings. I learned that "vision" and "mission" are synonymous in sign. There are others -- the interpreters will ask you for YOUR definition so it can be put in the context of sign.

I'm sure you'll have the same great experience I had -- lots of smiling and great participation.

-- Nancy Zare

One of the best learning opportunities I've ever had was speaking in front of a hearing impaired audience. It meant I couldn't turn my back lest some one be denied the option of lip reading. So I learned to use overhead transparencies as I spoke. I took notes on what I said as well as other members. Not everyone was hearing impaired and so we had interaction which I recorded. I think that more people benefited than just the person with the disability. And as I said, I was the one who got the most from this experience.

-- Dave Paradi

I thought I would pass on an experience I had. In a workshop two years ago I had a blind person as a participant. I relied a lot on some of the visuals I have on PowerPoint. Here are a few things that worked.

I sent the person the text of the workbook and the text of the slides in advance so that they could have their computer read the workbook to them in advance. Many blind people have a computer program that reads text to them, but it needs to be in MS Word type format, it can't read PowerPoint. So I converted my PowerPoint slides to Word using the Save As option. They listened to the slide text as I spoke during the workshop. The next challenge was how to get them to "see" some of the more complex graphics that I use. My solution here was to use Lego building blocks and string. I arranged the blocks in the pattern as on the slide, had them feel the layout, then helped them move the blocks to where they needed to go. For lines I used string between two points. It was a little more work thinking of the ideas, but I learned a great deal from the experience and the participant greatly appreciated the efforts (which were actually not that much on my part).

-- Mary Young

I work with the Sun Sounds Foundation, Inc. here in AZ presenting fundraising events that fund a radio station for individuals with visual disabilities, whether that be blindness, physical disabilities that they can not hold print, or learning disabilities that make hearing words easier to comprehend than reading them. Some of the things I've picked up are:

  • Font size -- minimum of 14 point for handouts and use 1" margins - use a lot of white space to allow their eyes to focus on words. Many near blind individuals can read if given large print items.
  • Certain blindness can see yellow and black easier than white. I use yellow paper for everything I can for that reason. The more neon the better.
  • Many blind use Braille readers. If you can give them electronic versions of handouts, they can have their machines read them to them later in the office. Better yet, if you send them ahead of time, they can read them and have the knowledge before your presentation.
  • If you have a website, make sure every page is labeled properly and does not contain a header. Again, for a Braille reade, it reads everything -- so if you mislabel a page, they may not read it after hearing the title.
  • In a presentation setup, I always ask everyone to say hi and identify themselves before starting. This helps someone who is blind know who is speaking and where they are within the room.
  • Also make sure things are labeled or explained -- e.g., bathrooms -- tell them take a right, etc.

You may want to contact your local library for the blind or other related programs. There are also resources like that for deaf audiences and other disabilities.

-- Bill Conerly

Many years ago, I was a young professor teaching economics, and I had a blind student enroll in Econ 101. I taught a very graphical course, with lots of supply and demand charts. Here's what I did. When I drew a line on a chart, I would describe it while I drew. ("The demand curve is downward sloping, from the Northwest corner to the Southeast corner.") A couple of weeks later, I realized that the entire class was doing a little better than normal. One reason was that I was reinforcing orally what they were seeing visually. Also, my words helped them sort out what was important from what was incidental. (For instance, if I drew the demand curve as a straight line, was I saying that they were straight? I told the class, listen to what I say. If I don't mention that it is straight, then it doesn't have to be.)

Well, the blind kid did a good job. I met with him once or twice during office hours and confirmed that he was getting it. He occasionally needed a little extra help, but it worked out OK.

For Econ 102, the second semester class, we began with supply and demand all over again, partially to reinforce this important basis for economics, and partially because students could take the two classes in either order, so we'd have half the class new to supply and demand, while the other half was getting a review. I remember asking the students a fairly complicated question involving shifting supply curves caused by a tax, and the effect that would have on price and quantity. I asked the new students if any of them could answer. None could. So I asked the second-semester students for an explanation. The blind kid raises his hand, then starts explaining how the lines shift, where the new intersection of supply and demand is, how that tells us the price has gone up, etc. All the new kids were stunned. They could SEE the graphs, and they still didn't understand it as well as the blind kid.

-- Mary Bryant

First of all, remember these are physical disabilities, not mental ones. Many people tend to "second shelf" people with disabilities which is exactly why it's an area I focus on.

If they have sight impairment, be extra careful to use descriptive words in your speech. No need to speak louder (many try to do that).

If they have hearing impairments, be sure to invite them to sit up front so they can read your lips. Keep them all in one section, so that you are never turning your head to make eye contact to the rest of the audience. They simply NEED to see you speak. (Not TOO slowly, yet deliberately.)

If they have physical mobility issues, don't assume they want help. They'll ask for it if they need it. Speak with them, not down to them. Recognize that even though their physical weakness may be obvious, you may need them to "brag" about their hidden strengths. We ALL have them.

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