Using EMPATHY When Relating to Those with Disabilities

Victoria Tkachuk by Victoria Tkachuk Additional Needs

Victoria Tkachuk

Victoria Tkachuk

I'm from the Midwest region of the United States and I have four children, three neurotypical daughters and one son with dyskinetic cerebral palsy....

Using EMPATHY When Relating to Those with Disabilities

This acronym can be a helpful tool for communication.

There is no doubt that we should all use more empathy when relating to anyone, but especially to those with additional needs.

But did you know there is a commonly used acronym for empathy? In the medical profession it is widely accepted as a useful, necessary, and successful tool for providing compassionate care. We can learn a lot from this helpful tool!

The "E" stands for eye contact. Making eye contact with a person shows you acknowledge them as an individual. This may seem obvious but looking directly at a person implies you see them apart from yourself, as another person with their own set of values and concerns. This is highly important when communicating with someone who is nonverbal, too!

The "M" is for musculofascial cues. In other words, facial expressions. When you speak to this person, do they smile? Grimace? Do their eyes convey distress or pain? These are all important cues to watch for.

The "P" stands for posture. How is the person you're speaking with sitting - upright, slouching, with difficulty? Of course, we will be sensitive to the typical way this person's body is affected by their disability. However, if they are normally able to sit upright but are now slouching down and with eyes downcast, this might tell you how they are emotionally in this moment.

The "A" stands for affect. This one is a bit trickier to understand and may not apply in all interactions. Affect is the general attitude of a person, which considers all the other cues talked about here. For example, a caregiver might have an effect of being positive, always putting a positive spin on the other person's comments. This could be helpful or not; if our aim is to acknowledge someone's concerns as legitimate, we should try to match their affect.

The "T" represents tone of voice and is straightforward. Pay attention to the tone someone is using, and how your tone might sound to them!

The "H" stands for 'hearing the person.' Not only does this mean literally listening to them when they speak, but also trying to hear what they truly mean. This can be challenging if someone has affected speech ability; try your best to understand and don't underestimate the power in asking questions.

The last letter in the acronym is "Y" which is for your response. We can practice good listening and overall empathy toward our disabled brothers and sisters all we want, but if our concluding response to them is dismissive or cold, then the effort is nullified. If you do nothing else in these steps, focus on your response being warm and sincere!

Our world can become a more accepting and inclusive place, one personal relationship at a time.


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