Written By: Seema Uppal

As part of Common Threads’ ongoing diversity, equity & inclusion programming, the organization held a Know & Grow workshop in December focused on how to best engage with people with developmental disabilities. The session was led by Natalia Wong, executive director of the WOW Center in Miami, a nonprofit that serves over 200 adults with developmental disabilities, offering programs such as music therapy, art, and educational studies.

In general, there are many stereotypes about people that are different. Often people shy away from because they do not understand. During the Know and Grow, Common Threads staff not only learned how to discuss this topic, but we got to meet so many of the people that they serve, specifically WOW’s clients with intellectual and physical disabilities.

Intellectual disability is life-long condition that affects people of all ages. Conditions vary in the degree of severity, ranging from mild to profound.  The way in which a person learns and then absorbs something is a process within itself. One must understand that this can be at times a long and tedious journey. What works for one individual may not work for another. But every individual has their own unique process.

“One of the lessons 2020 reiterated is that despite our race, our gender, our Disability — we are all human,” Wong said. “As nonprofit professionals, we all fight for the greater good of our respective fields, but in the forefront of it all should always be the willingness to understand humanity and our community. We all play a role in the fight for inclusion and as leaders in our community, it is important we seek understanding of all abilities.”

Physical disabilities appear when individuals may have difficulty controlling their body muscles. This can lead to brain damage. Whether intellectual or physical, they are equally challenging.

“It was refreshing to see the range of individual participants in the program,” said James Bell, associate director of programs for Common Threads. “Sometimes you get a narrow, myopic representation of disabled individuals, like most marginalized communities, which leaves little room for them to be full people with a wide range of emotions, energy, enthusiasm attitudes, and perspectives as any other community. This range was on full display and well highlighted during our training.”

Common Threads learned about the “10 Commandments for Communicating” with people with disabilities. This was an eye- opening opportunity for our team of educators who have a wide range of experience in working with students. Common Threads employees were taught to be more mindful when communicating with individuals with disabilities. Everyone wants to be heard, they just may not do it in a way that we are used to.

An acronym that was learned and should be shared is PFL:  people first language. This refers to putting the person before the disability. It describes what a person has, not who a person is. So instead of saying “disabled person,” it is preferable to say, “a person with a disability” or “individuals with disabilities.”

The 10 Commandments for Communicating include:

  1. Speak directly to a person with a disability, rather than to the sign language interpreter or companion.
  2. Always offer to shake hands when introduced to a person with a physical disability.
  3. When meeting someone who has a visual impairment, always identify yourself and others who are with you.
  4. If you help, wait until the offer is accepted. Then listen to or ask for instructions.
  5. Treat people as people. Address people who have disabilities by first name when extending the same familiarity to others.
  6. Do not lean on a person’s wheelchair.
  7. Listen attentively and patiently to a person who has a difficulty speaking. Do not pretend to understand, instead say something like “did you mean x, or did you want y”?
  8. When speaking to someone who uses a wheelchair, place yourself at eye-level in front of the person.
  9. To get attention of a person who is hard of hearing, tap them on the shoulder or wave.
  10. Do not be embarrassed if you happen to use common expressions that seem to relate to a person’s disability.

Common Threads staff also reflected that it was helpful to highlight the importance of  including and providing access to all members of our communities.

“It was helpful to learn some of the language used in this area and gain some fluency,” said Stephanie Folkens, vice president of programs. “This is a simple change that we can make immediately as we think about supporting students with disabilities.”

Folkens also reflected on instances where partners have shared that their students with disabilities have shown improvements in fine motor skills, math, and confidence after spending time in Common Threads’ Cooking Skills & World Cuisine courses.

“We know that students learn differently, and sometimes the ability to work hands-on, or to use familiar, tangible concepts related to food, can make all the difference,” Folkens said.

Seema Uppal is the policy, systems & environment coordinator for Common Threads’ SNAP-NY team. She is a graduate of Stonybrook University with a master’s degree in Master of Arts, and previously worked at Family Residences Essential Enterprises.


Common Threads is a national nonprofit that provides children and families cooking and nutrition education to encourage healthy habits that contribute to wellness. We equip under-resourced communities with information to make affordable, nutritious and appealing food choices wherever they live, work, learn, and play. We know that food is rooted in culture and tradition so we promote diversity in our lessons and recipes, encouraging our participants to celebrate the world around them.