Communicating Better with People with Disabilities


Nov 8, 2016


Whenever anything would go wrong in the early days of our foundation for children with special needs, Paula (our volunteer teacher-trainer, life-coach and best friend) would say, “Never mind! Worse things happen at sea.”

Difficult times require clarity of thought, word and action. Decisiveness. And no waffling about with the language. When you are commanding a ship of the line and you need to communicate with other ships passing by you, it is essential that your signals be crystal clear and unambiguous.

There is, in fact, an international visual flag code for such situations. The distance between boats at sea is too vast to shout across, and you may or may not have the captain’s phone number. You can’t leave it to whimsy, or the random innovation of a midshipman. Everybody must understand everybody else, and the understanding must be instantaneous. Lives depend upon it.

For people living with disability and their families, everyday life often feels as fraught as a journey on the high seas. We may look as if we know what we are doing but we are frequently navigating uncharted territory. While a shared language does exist, most so-called normal people aren’t fluent in it, and so, the distance between us and the next passerby can also seem vast.

Even those of us who speak the language know that it’s a living language; that is, it keeps changing. The terms that worked for a decade ago, or last year, may be passé or even objectionable today. “Retarded,” “pagal” and “defective” used to be common parlance to describe people with disability. No thinking person would use such language today.

The best, most useful terms are created by those who live the experience. That’s why we can learn so much from something like the people living with disability – sailors have made them up, based on their knowledge of what is crucial to get across. When other sailors see these flags run up the mast, they know exactly what they mean and they don’t take offence, even if the message is peremptory or abrupt.

Here’s my take on how these international signals could be useful for people with special needs.

Stop carrying out your intentions and watch for my signals.

stop-carrying-out-your-intentions-and-watch-for-my-signals-x-rayThis may be my favourite. I like the authority it pre-supposes and the integrity it assumes for the individual. In my world, moving around with Moy Moy, I often wish I could hoist this flag: over my car, when we really need to park right next to the store and the able-bodied person already there, clearly, does not. Or over our heads when we are just going through our day like anyone else and are not in the mood to answer questions or to be a poster family for disability.

We all know how to read peoples’ body language, we just forget or don’t bother. A flag like this could  be a helpful reminder to forget your own agenda, pay attention and see what others need or want.

Actually, it’s a pretty good signal to watch for from anyone, not only from people with disabilities.

“I have a diver down; keep well clear at slow speed.

i have a diver down keep well clear at slow speed, alpha penant flag, international code of signalsThings are not always as they appear at sea (or anywhere else). A ship may seem to be at rest, perhaps enjoying the sunset or readying itself for a battle a passing ship can have no idea about. Or, as this signal informs us, it may be waiting because a diver is examining its hull for signs of a leak.

The point is: Impatience is generally unhelpful. We seldom know the whole story when someone is taking longer than usual to move through a line, or to respond to a question, or to count change. There is always something happening beneath the surface, down below, where no one else can see.

“Keep clear of me. I am maneuvering with difficulty.

keep clear of me i am maneuvering with difficulty, delta penant flag, international code of signalsImagine a 200-ton vessel towing another ship, or operating short-staffed due to illness, or dealing with less-than-perfect steering equipment. The last thing it needs is a passing ship cutting across its path, or causing a swell of waves by its reckless speed, or (sometimes worst of all) getting in the way by trying to help when help has not been requested.

I know folks mean well. But so many people with disabilities can actually negotiate a tricky set of stairs, say, without the kind of help that is a disguise for taking over. Disability doesn’t mean inability, so – nothing personal – but please keep clear.

“I am disabled. Communicate with me.

i am disabled communicate with me, foxtrot penant flag, international code of signalsFaced with a ship of the line which states – clearly and unambiguously – that it is disabled, wouldn’t the best response be to do exactly what the signal suggests? Find out what the problem is and what the ship needs (if anything) to deal with it. The give and take of conversation is all that’s needed.

We can learn so much from the clarity and the immediacy of the sea. On the water, out there on the high seas, at the mercy of the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we can’t afford to mince words, to worry about political correctness or to make assumptions.

A ship is approaching. What’s going on? “I am disabled. Communicate with me.

That’s really all it takes.


Written By Jo Chopra

Jo Chopra McGowan is an American by birth and a writer by profession. She is a former criminal (peace movement/anti-abortion activist jailed in America on a dozen occasions), a mother of three, and has lived in India for the past 33 years with her Indian husband, saas, masiji and assorted other joint family-wallas.

She is a co-founder and director of the Latika Roy Foundation, a voluntary organization in Dehradun for children with disability. She also trained as a lay midwife, is amusingly fluent in Hindi, and loves public speaking, opera, photography, reading, cooking and wine.


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