Engaging Parents with Disabilities and Learning Differences

Partnering with Parents with Disabilities and Learning Differences

Partnering effectively with a disabled parent or a parent with a learning difference requires getting to know them as an individual. As staff deepen their relationship with a parent, they will learn more about that person’s goals, interests, and disabilities or learning differences. This knowledge will help staff provide appropriate and accessible communication methods, program delivery, and services. Sometimes, this will involve adapting existing methods and programs. Community-based organizations experienced with engaging parents with disabilities and learning differences may also support staff to develop effective partnerships with parents.


“Everyone knows I have ADHD. I feel like ADHD sometimes isn’t taken seriously. Sometimes it takes me a really long time for me to process things and comprehend information. I’ve never asked for accommodations, but I definitely ask a lot of questions in meetings or prior to meetings. I was involved in Policy Council, and I asked a lot more questions than other people. I would worry that I was ‘wasting’ everyone’s time getting clarification. I’ve made it a point to go over things beforehand and email questions ahead of time. That’s helpful to me. I know I’m a good advocate for myself by asking questions.” – Head Start parent

Most communication practices used with parents with disabilities or learning differences are the same practices and strategies you use with all parents. However, there are times when new strategies are needed, or when existing strategies will need to be adjusted or modified to fit a parent’s situation.

Engage respectfully and responsively.

  • Speak directly with disabled parents and parents with learning differences, rather than with their companion or interpreter.
  • Speak at the same volume and rate as you do other parents unless they request otherwise.
  • If you do not understand something that has been said, ask the parent to repeat what was shared. You may want to repeat back what you heard to ensure accuracy.
  • Respect personal space, including wheelchairs, service dogs, and other aids.

Ask about and respond to parents’ strengths, needs, and preferences.

  • Avoid making assumptions about a person based on their disability.
  • Ask parents about their preferences and respect their responses. For example, ask before:
    • Aiding someone using a wheelchair
    • Physically assisting someone who is blind or has low vision

Allow enough time for effective, responsive, frequent interactions.

  • Invest the time needed to develop strong relationships with parents with disabilities and learning differences. Frequent, regular, accessible two-way communication is vital to building trusting relationships.
  • Recognize that some disabilities may affect the time that parents need to communicate.
  • Provide enough time to adjust your communication strategies, modifying meeting lengths and timelines if necessary.

Reflect on your interpretations of parents’ cues.

  • Notice how parents respond to you and consider carefully what their responses may mean.
  • Note that parents may nod or agree with you to show they are listening. However, they may or may not understand what you are trying to communicate.
  • Recognize that a parent who is not making eye contact or is looking away may be attending to something else. Or the parent may be paying close attention but find eye contact overwhelming or culturally inappropriate.

Learn strategies for communicating with people with specific disabilities.

  • If a parent has a specific disability or learning difference, find out more about the condition and its potential impact.
  • As you learn more about a specific disability and ways to communicate, it is always best practice to check with parents about their specific strengths, needs, and preferences around communication needs.
  • If appropriate, identify and adapt resources and strategies to support effective communication. The program’s disabilities coordinator may assist in identifying resources that involve a parent’s or child’s disability or learning differences.
  • Plan for reflective supervision with your supervisor as needed to manage healthy boundaries and find additional resources.

Provide resources and materials that fit parents’ strengths, needs, and preferences.

  • Identify communication-related resources that may aid in interacting effectively with parents, depending on their specific situation. Visual supports aid communication with some parents. For example, circle important dates on a printed calendar rather than share a list of dates alone. A family may like to see a photo of all the material they should bring to the program with their child.
  • Adapt existing resources, when appropriate. For example, modify a timeline to provide additional time for benchmarks or more outreach to the family.
  • Identify added resources to support parents when needed. For example, this Nighttime with a Newborn video could be used to support parents with mobility issues who requested ideas for caring for their newborn at night.

Expect that parents’ strengths, needs, and preferences may change over time.

  • Check in with parents regularly about their needs and preferences. Some disabilities, including chronic illnesses, may affect parents differently at various times, which could require various levels of communication and support depending on their current level of well-being, health, and circumstances.

“Staff can support parents with disabilities by figuring out the best way to communicate with each parent. They should get to know their parents and pay attention to how each parent operates and functions. My disability makes it harder to follow up with lots of text than with audio. It sticks with me better. Anytime [the Head Start program] sends out a text email, it can also send out an audio email. Lots of people prefer audio. Especially if it’s important information like days the program is closed, share it in audio.” – Head Start parent

Conversation Planning

A strengths-based approach is essential when planning conversations with parents with disabilities or learning differences. The Engaging with Families in Conversations About Sensitive Topics resource can help guide staff to have effective, strengths-based conversations on sensitive topics like housing, economic mobility, health or mental health challenges, and concerns for the safety of a child or a family. This approach can be used to discuss many topics. However, it is especially helpful when a conversation needs thoughtful consideration and intentional planning.

When communicating with parents with disabilities and learning differences, consider how this approach can support effective and intentional conversations where you have a specific goal or outcome.

Before an Interaction

  • Identify your goals for the interaction while being open to the family’s goals.
  • Reflect on what you know about the family’s communication and accessibility needs.
  • Use the information to choose an appropriate and accessible environment and materials.
  • Schedule enough time for the interaction.

During an Interaction

  • Ask about parents’ preferences for communication and use their preferred methods.
  • Be flexible and responsive to what parents bring up during the meeting.
  • Check in during the conversation to be sure that the communication is effective. Do you understand what they are communicating? Do they understand what you are communicating? Rephrasing and restating the main points can be helpful.
  • Identify clear next steps for staff and family, when appropriate.

After an Interaction

  • Complete any follow up, including connections to community resources and peer support.
  • Check in with parents regularly to keep up with any changes in their circumstances or preferences.
  • Follow up after any referrals or connections are made.