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How to Speak With People With Intellectual Disabilities

A Resource for Healthcare Professionals, Parents, and Anyone Communicating With Our Athletes

This video features Special Olympics Chairman Timothy Shriver and our athletes discussing why it’s so important to include people with intellectual disabilities in all areas of life—especially healthcare access. The first step is learning how to communicate with respect, compassion, and care.

Whether you’re in a professional environment or just having a personal conversation, consider these 10 basic rules for communicating with a person with an intellectual disability.

“Athletes with disabilities are just like everyone else. They just want to be treated fairly and respectfully.”
Special Olympics athlete

10 Tips for Working With People With Intellectual Disabilities

1. Do not call them kids. Our athletes range from ages 2 to 78+!

2. Use clear, simplified language and try speaking slower, not louder. Our athletes have an intellectual disability of varying degrees, but they are not all necessarily hard of hearing—speaking more loudly won’t make them understand you better.

3. Set expectations. Many of our athletes need to know ahead of time what will happen. As you go through your procedures, describe what you will be doing now, and perhaps the next one or two steps that will follow as well.

4. Treat them as you would your peers. Do not speak down to them. They love a good joke, tease, or challenge just like we do.

5. Draw boundaries. Do not allow them to get away with bad behavior—just as you wouldn't allow someone without intellectual disabilities to behave badly.

6. Ask them their thoughts and allow them to answer. Don’t put words in their mouths.

7. Ask if you can help them before acting and assuming they actually need help.

8. Expect to get a lot of questions. Many of our athletes are very curious about what you are doing and also just about you. If the questions get too invasive, it’s okay to say, “I’m not comfortable with answering that.”

9. Have fun and enjoy their candor! Be prepared for their bluntness. Our athletes are very honest.

10. Be enthusiastic, upbeat, and professional. And if it’s overwhelming, it’s also okay to ask for a break to reset where your mind is.

Download the printable PDF below and share these tips with your social networks to join us in creating a more inclusive world!

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