Just Say Hi: Communicating Effectively with People Who Have Disabilities

just-say-hiBy Meredith Williams, NACCHO Health and Disability Fellow

This fall, the Cerebral Palsy Foundation launched its Just Say Hi campaign to address the discomfort and hesitation many people feel when first attempting to communicate with people who have disabilities. Many local health departments face a similar uncertainty when attempting to communicate with people who have disabilities, which can be a major barrier to preparing for, responding to, and recovering from emergencies and disasters. But the celebrities and public figures featured in the campaign emphasize that communicating with people who have disabilities can be easier than it seems. Whether you watch a campaign video or ask Siri how to start a conversation with someone who has a disability, you’ll receive the same advice: “It’s easy. Just say ‘Hi.’”

Most Emergency Communications Remain Inaccessible
People with disabilities face serious health inequities and are more likely to face adverse outcomes during and after an emergency. Twenty percent of the U.S. population currently has a disability, but almost everyone will experience a disability at some point in their lifetimes. [1] Some people have disabilities that affect their ability to communicate, including hearing, seeing, speaking, reading, writing, or understanding.

Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act requires state and local governments ensure that “whatever is written or spoken must be as clear and understandable to people with disabilities as it is for people who do not have disabilities.” [2] Nonetheless, the National Council on Disability reports that emergency communications remain largely inaccessible to people with disabilities. [3] Emergency communications are a critical part of saving lives, and inaccessible communication practices threaten to leave many people with disabilities behind. For example, press conferences and television announcements may not include an American Sign Language interpreter, television and video captioning is often inaccurate, and telephone systems, such as 911, may not able to receive text communications from people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Recognizing the importance of accessible communication, the White House announced its commitment to making this year’s State of the Union address accessible to everyone for the first time. This includes providing accurate real-time captioning for all live broadcasts of the address, communication access real-time translation (CART) services for people attending the watch party at the White House, and transcripts of the address after it airs. The White House is also taking steps to make sure that people who use screen readers and speech recognition software can access its website and social media videos.

What Can Local Health Departments Do?
Making sure that communications are accessible to the whole community not only saves lives during emergencies and disasters, but helps people with disabilities learn about your health department, contact you, and use your services. Accessible communication is a vital part of including and engaging people with disabilities in everything your health department does. The following suggestions can help your health department improve communication accessibility:

  • Get involved. Partner with organizations that represent and serve people with disabilities in your community and get involved with these organizations’ community events, meetings, and projects. Invite these organizations to become actively involved in assessing the accessibility of your communications over the long-term. Include people with disabilities and disability organizations in your emergency drills and on your advisory boards, planning committees, and evaluation teams.
  • Ask people with disabilities to lead or participate in staff training. People with disabilities are diverse and know their individual needs and preferences best. Use training tools like the ADA Hospitality & Disability: At Your Service Video that feature people with disabilities speaking about their own communication needs.
  • Practice multimodal communication. Provide at least one form of communication for each type of communication disability to ensure that everyone can access information, particularly during emergencies. Use alternative formats for written communications, including printed documents with large text, electronic documents, and audio recordings. Learn about sign language interpreting and video remote interpreting (VRI) services for in-person communication. Become comfortable using teletypewriters (TTYs) or computers with TTY capabilities, telephone relay services, and video interpreting services (VIS) for telephone communication. Remember, communicating with people who are deaf, are hard of hearing, or have speech disabilities doesn’t have to be complicated. Simple solutions such as writing communication on paper, smart phones, or computers can be very effective. You can follow the White House’s lead by providing CART services, printed transcripts, and accessible websites. Visit ADA Best Practices Toolkit for State and Local Governments—Chapter 5: Website Accessibility Under Title II of the ADA to learn more.
  • Find out what resources are available in your community. Be prepared to communicate effectively by finding out who provides interpretation, transcription, and other communication services in your community. The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf and the National Court Reporters Association Online Sourcebook maintain searchable online directories of certified professionals.
  • If you’re not sure what to do—ask. Not everyone with a disability has difficulty communicating, and not all modes of communication work for everyone with a certain type of disability. The best way to find out how to communicate effectively with each individual you encounter is to ask. Make a habit of asking people if they need assistance, and if so, what type of assistance they need, rather than asking if they have a disability. The choice to self-identify as a person who has a disability is up to each individual and can feel threatening to those who have encountered stigma and discrimination in the past. Practice using person-first language and interacting with people with disabilities as capable adults. If you don’t know what to do or which terms to use, just ask! It’s easy—the conversation starts when you “Just Say Hi.”

Additional resources:


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. New features added to Disability and Health Data System (DHDS). National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities. http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/features/dhds.html. Published April 15, 2014. Accessed December 5, 2015.
  2. US Department of Justice. ADA Best Practices Tool Kit for State and Local Governments—Chapter 3: General Effective Communication Requirements Under Title II of the ADA. Americans with Disabilities Act. http://www.ada.gov/pcatoolkit/chap3toolkit.htm. Published February 27, 2007. Accessed January 6, 2016.
  3. National Council on Disability. Effective Communications for People with Disabilities: Before, During, and After Emergencies. National Council on Disability. http://www.ncd.gov/publications/2014/05272014. Published May 27, 2014. Accessed January 6, 2016.


The Lead Contamination Crisis in Flint, Michigan: A Joint Statement from NACCHO and ASTHO

The lead poisoning crisis in Flint, Michigan touches on almost every aspect in the daily life of a health department: lead poisoning, water quality, health equity, reproductive health, and other social, political, and environmental impacts. This crisis underscores the basic fundamental need to have safe food, air, and water.

As always, the role of our health departments is to promote and protect the health and well-being of all people in their communities. The National Association of County & City Health Officials and the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, alongside our federal partners, support our colleagues in Genesee County and the state of Michigan.  We will continue to update our members about further developments and opportunities to assist with the ongoing crisis and help Flint emerge as a strong and resilient community. Together we are working to immediately learn the lessons from this crisis to better inform public health at the local, state, and national level.

Both NACCHO and ASTHO have a history of responding to emerging issues by leveraging our resources, networks, and members to support the needs of local and state public health departments. Both organizations have been actively communicating with local, state, and federal stakeholders. We will coordinate with all of our partners to assist with needed capacity and resources in this crisis, including epidemiology, surveillance, screening, risk communication, education, remediation, long-term recovery, and policy.

NACCHO Launches Newly Designed Website to Enhance Member Services and Deliver Population Health

websiteNACCHO launched its newly designed website to make its rich array of resources and information more accessible to its members, partners, and visitors in enhancing population health. The new site’s functionality will also allow NACCHO to drive member engagement, maximize retention rates, and increase organizational relevancy.

NACCHO Executive Director LaMar Hasbrouck, MD, MPH said, “Completion of our redesigned website is a significant step forward towards making NACCHO a more nimble, tech-savvy organization, and a responsive resource to those working to improve population health.”

NACCHO’s new search engine not only offers a robust search of naccho.org, but features top trending topics that gives the user an intuitive experience in accessing information. NACCHO’s new navigation tool is a collapsible menu, and the new hover feature allows the user to identify a program area/content by color; i.e., blue for Community Health, green for Environmental Health, orange for Preparedness, and purple for Public Health Infrastructure. NACCHO’s new site also offers the latest in-page navigation techniques and allows for simple sharing on social media.

In Phase II of the website redevelopment, NACCHO will incorporate several exciting new features, including a state-of-the-art virtual community, which will allow NACCHO members to collaborate and connect. Phase II also includes a new Toolbox and Model Practice interface, which will have a sleeker look and be more intuitive to NACCHO members and users.

NACCHO’s design team worked with MilesHerndon, a full-service brand strategy agency, to develop this user-friendly website with heavy consultation from their members within a short timeline. The objective was to create a website that allows users to easily access key resources including a dynamic Toolbox and policy and advocacy materials.

The ten-month website redesign project was informed by an intense study period that included usability studies, target audience participation sessions, and staff input. The final three design concepts—member-based, story-based, and resource-based—were presented and voted on by NACCHO members at NACCHO’s 2015 Annual Meeting. Ultimately, the new and improved site incorporates the best elements of all three concepts. View the website at www.naccho.org.

Gun Violence: A Public Health Crisis in America’s Streets

By Dr. Swannie Jett, DrPH, MSc, NACCHO President and Health Officer for the Florida Department of Health in Seminole County

A crisis is playing out on the streets of America’s communities. Gun violence is a major public health problem and a leading cause of premature death. The issue of gun violence was thrust into the national spotlight once again on Dec. 2, when a gunman killed 14 people at a health department in San Bernardino, CA, drawing worldwide media attention. Mass shootings have shaped national debates about mental illness and gun laws. The Federal Bureau of Investigation defines mass shootings as incidents where four or more people are killed or injured by gunfire. Continue reading

Cervical Health Awareness Month: Resources and Lessons from LHDs

By LaMar Hasbrouck, MD, MPH, Executive Director, NACCHO

January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, a time when local health departments (LHDs) can increase awareness of cervical cancer, the role of human papillomavirus (HPV) as the leading cause of cervical cancer, and the importance of prevention and early detection in their communities.

Although the number of cervical cancer cases has decreased over time in the United States, thousands of women and their families, friends, and caregivers are affected by cervical cancer each year. Continue reading

Investments in Electronic Processes Advance Service Delivery and Improve the Public’s Health

By Dr. Swannie Jett, NACCHO President and Health Officer for the Florida Department of Health in Seminole County

Since new technologies emerge every day, the field of local public health can reap the benefits of our nation’s expanding health information technology (IT) infrastructure. At my local health department (LHD) in Seminole County, FL, we recently implemented electronic processes to improve data collection and screening efficiency. Investing in electronic processes have made my LHD staff more productive and my community healthier. Continue reading

NACCHO Statement on the San Bernardino Shooting

Dear NACCHO Family:

Our work in public health requires that we place ourselves squarely on the frontlines in keeping our communities healthy and safe. This sometimes means we risk personal safety in service to our mission. This reality came to the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health, in a tragic shooting that left 14 people dead and 21 wounded. Among the wounded was one of our colleagues, Amanda Gaspard, an environmental health specialist with San Bernardino County. We wish her all the best for a speedy recovery.

These incidents are happening all too frequently—on average, a shooting occurs every day in the United States. In 209 out of 336 days this year, at least one shooting left four or more people injured or dead, including a shooting that occurred just last week at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood.

In this instance, as our thoughts turn to our friends and colleagues at the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health, we want to remind and urge all of our colleagues that we are a resilient community that strongly supports each another, especially in times of crisis. To that end, we want to urge our public health department colleagues to seek out others—especially professionals—to talk to about your fears and concerns. Use NACCHO’s resources, and those of other organizations, including SAMHSA’s national helpline.

As always, NACCHO remains committed to providing resources, training, and guidance to their local health department members to help in their response to this ongoing public health challenge. These include Suspicious Activity Training, Active Shooter and Explosive Device, and Risk Communications. You will find resources on NACCHO’s Preparedness blog here, including Building Workforce Resilience through the Practice of Psychological First Aid and updated resources from Department of Human Services can be found here.

LaMar Hasbrouck, MD, MPH
Executive Director