Case sensitive: Communicating to audiences with disabilities

October 1, 2010

One of the biggest challenges of working to connect with disability communities is their broad diversity.  Disability communities are, in fact, a community of communities.

U.S. Census Bureau statistics from 2000 revealed that approximately 49.7 million people in the United States live with some sort of disability.  This amounts to almost 20 percent of the population.

Within this group, all races, genders and various levels of capability — physical, intellectual and mental — are represented. Disability does not discriminate.

To get an idea of the extensive diversity in this group, consider the following statistics from the 2008 American Community Survey (ACS), which is conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau and calculated by the Cornell University Employment and Disability Institute:

• Visual impairments, all demographics —  About 2.3 percent, or 6.8 million male and female participants of all ages and backgrounds in the ACS reported some form of visual disability.
• Hearing deficits, females — Roughly 2.9 percent, or 4.4 million females of all ages and backgrounds reported that they had some sort of hearing deficit.
• Mobility challenges, African-American males —  An estimated 6.8 percent, or approximately 1 million African-American men, reported that they face some form of mobility challenge.
• Cognitive disabilities, Asian teenage males —  About 1.5 percent, or 6,600 Asian males 16-20 years old, said that they have some form of cognitive disability.

There are sub-categories within these categories of disabilities. In the hearing impairment category, for instance, individuals may range from experiencing complete deafness to slight hearing losses. For further analysis, consider gender, age and ethnic origin to obtain even more understanding of the issues, concerns and attitudes of each group.

Identifying your audience
One of the tenets of professional communications is,  “Know your audience.”  With this in mind, the most serious mistake that a communicator can make is to lump all of those with some form of disability into a single “disability community” heading on an audience matrix.

While the level of sophistication depends on the nature of the communications program, it is always a good practice to treat any general demographic as an umbrella for many subsets within — each with its own mindset and self-interest. Take the time to customize your communications plans to address the differences between these subsets.

Do the necessary research to identify the attitudes of your targeted audiences. You may be surprised at the results and how they vary between demographics within a targeted audience.

That said, the following are some mistakes to avoid:

• Don’t assume that people with disabilities do not work. The ACS reported that in 2008, about 39 percent or 7.5 million working age adults with some form of disability were employed.  And this does not take into account those who are able to work but were unemployed because of the recession.

• Don’t assume that all of those with a particular disability share the same attitudes toward the same societal issues. One person with Parkinson’s disease may favor embryonic stem cell research funding, while another may strongly disagree for his or her own reasons.

• Don’t project your own feelings about particular disabilities on the targeted audience. How we think we would react if we had a certain disability is probably different than how those who actually have a certain disability have responded to their challenges.

• Don’t dismiss the emerging language of disability as political correctness run amok. The accepted language of disability is called “People First,” which simply places the emphasis on the individual and not the disability. It provides proper context for all communications.  We know it’s not acceptable in general conversation to refer to a colleague as “the fat guy at the corner table,” or the “old woman in the conference room.”  We should know better than to refer to a colleague as  “that wheelchair-bound sales rep,” or to describe the son of a coworker as “retarded.”

• Don’t patronize. It is common, especially in PR circles, to want to recognize individuals for their dedication or hard work. But when we add a layer to this recognition, calling people with disabilities “courageous” or “brave” simply for doing their jobs, we could be crossing a line that has an unintended effect on the individual.  Often such recognition could be perceived as disingenuous, shallow and without substance.

The best way to communicate to people with disabilities (and every other demographic in society) is to treat them with even-handed respect. Language is important, of course. But perhaps most important: PR professionals must avoid using a “one size fits all” approach to communicating with this growing group of individuals.

Tim O'Brien, APR

Tim O’Brien, APR, owns O’Brien Communications, an independent corporate communications practice in Pittsburgh, and hosts the “Shaping Opinion” podcast. Email: Twitter: @OBrienPR.


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