When explaining a complex issue like the Coronavirus pandemic, we should first ask the person we are talking to what they already know about it.
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Tim Villegas
Special Educator, Founder and Head Curator at Think Inclusive

March 10, 2021

Discussing the ramifications of a pandemic with people who have disabilities takes some thoughtful planning.

Nothing prepares you for a global pandemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the last pandemic comparable to the current one was H1N1 influenza, which killed about 12,500 people in the United States and an estimated 284,000 worldwide.

Discussing the ramifications of a pandemic with people who have disabilities takes some thoughtful planning. My brother-in-law Gabriel, who lives in Washington DC with my mother-in-law, has autism and is in his mid-twenties. About a year ago, he created a group text that includes me, my wife, and a few other family members, which he uses to give us updates on his life. These updates consist of anything from selfies of him dressed up as a wizard (a special interest of his for many years) to pictures of him baking banana bread to scenes from around the White House, where he frequently takes walks.

When large gatherings and businesses began to shut down all across the country, Gabriel realized that many of his favorite activities were going to be canceled. Along with the typical “good morning" and "good night" messages Gabriel texted us, he also began including the strong inflection “I hate Coronavirus." He was looking forward to the St. Patrick’s’ Day Parade, which he realized would also be canceled. “I do wish the Coronavirus was over for my sake," he continued, and he assured us that he wasn’t going to let the virus get him.

I asked my mother-in-law if she'd done anything to prepare Gabriel for dealing with the Coronavirus. She explained that she modeled what social distancing looked like “by holding our arms straight out towards each other but not touching to model a 6-foot distance." This gave Gabriel a visual and physical model for personal space as he walks around the community. She also told him that he should start wearing a mask, wash his hands regularly, and not touch anything if he could help it. Gabriel himself made the decision to wear gloves whenever he left the house.

Talking to people with disabilities about a pandemic is, at its core, no different than talking about it with anyone else, but there are a few extra considerations. Here are three strategies to help explain a pandemic to people with disabilities.

Presume competence

No matter whether a person has a disability or not, they bring background knowledge that you may or may not be aware of. The idea of “presuming competence" can sometimes be misconstrued as believing that everyone has the same understanding and ability. In actuality, to presume competence is to understand that a person is capable of growth. When explaining a complex issue like the Coronavirus pandemic, we should first ask the person we are talking to what they already know about it.

Figuring out what a person already knows about a topic can let us know what needs to be clarified and what has already been explained. When I asked my brother-in-law Gabriel about the pandemic, he already had some working knowledge, because he watched the news and had a conversation with my mother-in-law. He also came up with his own strategies to make sure he kept himself safe.

Use plain language

While there is no shortage of explainers for the Coronavirus pandemic, it is difficult to find information that is written in plain language. Plain language is defined as “clear, straightforward expression, using only as many words as are necessary." Some examples of plain language explainers include these suggestions from Green Mountain Self-Advocates.

What is COVID-19?

It is a new illness spreading around the world. Its nickname is Coronavirus.

How do you get it?

Someone with COVID-19 gives you their germs. When someone with COVID-19 coughs or sneezes on you, their germs get in the air, and onto you and other things. Germs get into your body through your mouth, nose, and eyes.

(You can also check out this Coronavirus explainer aimed at adults from the folks at Gigi's Playhouse.)

Another word for "explainer" is "social story". Carol Gray, who devised the concept of social stories in the early 90s to help explain complex situations to students with autism spectrum disorder, gives an example of a social story explaining the Coronavirus pandemic.

Utilize video explainers

Another strategy to help explain the Coronavirus pandemic to people with disabilities is to use video explainers. This is a great option because videos can be paused and replayed, and they typically have captions. There are plenty of examples, but it's best to stick to videos that are less than 10 minutes long, and that are based on facts and science.

Here are some good ones to start with:

No matter what strategies you employ during a pandemic, be respectful of the person with whom you are communicating, and use age-appropriate materials and information. Understand that, first and foremost, they are a person. Think about how you would like to receive information.

Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com