Building better relationships with clients who are disabled

March 21, 2019
Maureen McKinney, Associate Editorial Director

Providing excellent customer service for pet owners who have a disability demands flexibility, sensitivity, resourceful thinking and kindness from your entire veterinary team.

shootingankauf / stock.adobe.comAccording to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 13 percent of Americans have a disability, and that number is growing. Some disabilities are noticeable (e.g., blindness, deafness, mobility issues), while others are less apparent (e.g., depression, anxiety, Alzheimer's disease). All, however, have a significant effect on the individual.

As the number of owned pets grows, so does the number of pet owners with disabilities. Interacting with these clients in practice may present a challenge, but it's one that's well worth overcoming for a number of reasons, including healthier pets, happier clients and potential referrals. Conquering these challenges is best achieved, according to a new study published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science, with “sensitivity, understanding and kindness.”

Emma K. Grigg, MA, PhD, CCAB, and Lynette A. Hart, BS, MA, PhD, a research associate and professor, respectively, at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine, reviewed the veterinary literature to identify best practices for building successful working relationships with clients with disabilities. Here's what they found.

Basic etiquette do's and don'ts

When it comes to working with clients who are disabled, allowing a bit more time, expending a bit more effort and communicating a bit more carefully are the keys to forging a good veterinarian-client bond and ensuring the health of the pet. Drs. Grigg and Hart outlined a number of basic etiquette recommendations for connecting better with clients with disabilities:

  • Do address your comments to the client, not to a companion.

  • Don't presume to know anything about the client's disability.

  • Do maintain eye contact while speaking with the client.

  • Don't touch the client in such a way that may be startling.

  • Do involve the client in any diagnostic or treatment decisions that need to be made.

  • Don't use outdated terms such as “crippled,” “handicapped,” “physically challenged” or “differently abled.”

  • Do be as flexible as possible if a client requests special accommodations.

Other ways to meet these clients' needs include providing a designated parking space for patrons with disabilities, scheduling appointments during slower times of day, allowing more time for appointments and keeping practice halls free of obstructions.

Keep in mind that adjusting your practice-both physically and attitudinally-to meet the needs of clients with disabilities should be a team effort. Provide training and other resources to help staff understand the varying needs and challenges of these clients and to facilitate effective communication.

When in doubt, the authors advise, ask the client if he or she needs help and, if so, exactly how you can help. Likewise, if an assistance dog is present, ask the owner before touching the animal.

Specific types of disabilities

Individual disabilities, and thus the individual's associated needs, are wide-ranging. Consider these suggestions to foster good relationships with clients who have specific types of disabilities:

  • Blindness/impaired vision: Always speak clearly and directly to the client, introduce yourself and any other team members present, and guide the client around any potential physical hazards in the practice. Provide hands-on demonstrations of how to perform any necessary home care, such as administering medication or changing bandages.

  • Deafess/difficulty hearing: Face the client directly, and speak clearly and expressively. Don't speak in an overly loud voice unless requested to do so, and don't cover your mouth when talking. Reduce background noise as much as possible, and be sure the client is listening before you speak. Using a whiteboard can also help aid communication. Facilitate phone conversations with teletypewriter (TTY) phone relay services; using text messaging and email are also viable communication vehicles.

  • Speaking difficulty: Listen carefully when conversing, reducing background noise if possible, and be patient if it takes time for the client to express him- or herself. Use reflective listening, provide a whiteboard to simplify written communication, and avoid interrupting or finishing a client's sentence (even if you are trying to help). Understand that difficulty speaking does not equate to decreased cognitive ability.

  • Physical or mobility impairment: Ensure that clients can maneuver the physical space of your practice. For those who use a wheelchair, adjust exam table height as needed and come around the reception desk to speak to clients with eye contact. Be sure the client is physically able to comply with home care recommendations, such as opening a medication bottle.

  • Dementia: Always provide written instructions (using a large font) for patients with memory loss, and provide a calendar that indicates upcoming appointments or medication timing as needed. If possible, enlist the help of a friend or family member to help ensure compliance with recommended treatments. 

Keep in mind that people who share a common disability may adapt to it differently, so follow the client's lead to ensure that you are meeting his or her particular needs.