How to Create Effective Health Messages for People with Disabilities

Title Image for Effective MessagesAs a health professional, your job is to help people adopt and maintain healthy lifestyles. While people may have different abilities, they benefit from the same messages: Get plenty of physical activity. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Cut back on fats and sweets. Quit smoking. Lose weight. Sleep at least eight hours every night.

The key to effective communication is to construct messages so that they reflect the needs and attitudes of people of different abilities. This booklet is designed to help you create messages that are meaningful for people with disabilities. Consider these suggestions:

Get to know your audience.

About 43 million Americans have disabilities, which is a group larger than the population of African-Americans and Spanish-speaking Americans combined. Consider the impact of disabilities upon health messages:

  • 19.2 million Americans are limited to only a quarter-mile walk.
  • 18.2 million can carry just 10 pounds or less, about equivalent to a grocery bag.
  • 12.8 million have trouble reading the print you are reading now.
  • 7.7 million can't hear normal conversation.
  • Approximately 2.5 million New Yorkers, or one in five adults, have disabling conditions.

Review the community's demographics and vital statistics. Remember that people with disabilities are as heterogenous as people without disabilities. Ethnic and cultural differences should also be considered.

Seek allies and build trusting relationships that will support good health for everyone. Are there relationships between community leaders and people with disabilities? Have community leaders been supportive of issues that are important to people with disabilities? What do people with disabilities believe about their health?

Use focus groups to form messages and pre-test materials.

There are two ways to craft health messages to reach people with disabilities. You can include them in generic health promotion campaigns, or you can design materials that specifically target them.

You need to include people with disabilities in your focus groups. You need to find out what they think and feel about your topic, regardless of whether they are part of your audience or are your only target.

When you think you have crafted the right message, and have presented it in the appropriate format and medium, (along with the appropriate ethnic and cultural messages) invite people with disabilities to pre-test your materials:

  • Ask local Independent Living Centers (ILCs) and other service providers and associations (i.e, United Cerebral Palsy Association, American Limb Loss Association, etc.) if they can set up focus groups for basic research as well as to pre-test materials. Compensate focus group participants for their time and effort. For a free copy of "How to Conduct Successful Focus Groups," write: Publications, Box 2000, Albany, NY, 12220.
  • Subscribe to listservs and chat lines on the Internet and ask if you can post questions for discussion or submit drafts of your educational materials for comment. Contact the New York State Office of the Advocate for People with Disabilities at 1-800-522-4369 (voice/TTY) for assistance and ideas. The office also sponsors an electronic bulletin board. The Disability and Health Program of the New York State Department of Health offers a listserv for individuals with spinal cord injury. Call 518-474-2018 for more information.

Be prepared to offer materials in alternative formats.

  • Use copiers to enlarge printed materials for easier reading.
  • Be prepared to offer materials in Braille. Check our phone book and the Internet for Braille services, or visit for free Braille services.
  • Tape materials onto cassettes for easier listening.
  • Use sign language interpreters at presentations.
  • Inquire about Computer-Assisted Realtime Translation (CART). A court reporter/stenocaptioner enters the speaker's words into a computer that displays them as text for the participant. The National Court Reporters Association at 1-800-272-6272 maintains a list of certified CART reporters.
  • Make sure that facilities are accessible. Check out "People First: How to Plan Events Everyone Can Attend" which can be ordered from the New York State Department of Health by writing: Publications, Box 2000, Albany, NY, 12220.

Be inclusive of all people.

  • For materials for the general public, include photographs and illustrations of people who use wheelchairs or other assistive devices, along with people without disabilities. When writing for the general public, include information for people with disabilities. For example, when discussing physical activity, refer to the 1996 Surgeon General's Report on Physical Activity. It includes how physically active people with disabilities accrue extra benefits, such as cutting the risk for developing additional health problems while improving strength and flexibility.
  • Include photographs and illustrations of people without disabilities in materials targeting people with disabilities as well.

Take advantage of easy-to-use promotional items and universally designed products.

  • Choose promotional products that are easy to use. For example, choose pens with grips, or water bottles with handles, and easy-to-read, highly visible, user-friendly instructions, explanations, etc. Consider nonbreakable bottles and containers which are plastic, not glass, and are easy to open and use.
  • Be familiar with adaptive design concepts and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The Internet and agencies serving people with disabilities can help you learn more about using adaptive design to promote health to people of different abilities.
  • Create an accessible web site. For suggestions on designing accessible web sites, visit the Web Accessibility Initiative, an international project, at
  • To encourage other groups to address people with disabilities, work with other health professionals who have expertise in various areas of prevention, such as nutrition, physical activity and access to primary preventive health care, as well as professionals in such fields as transportation, education, and employment. For example, tips for modifying physical activity are in the brochure, "Adapt the Fun: Physical Activity and People with Disabilities." Also, check out "People First: Communicating with and about People with Disabilities." Both are available, free of charge, by writing: Publications, P. O. Box 2000; or they can be downloaded from

For more information about people with disabilities and wellness issues, write:

  • New York State Department of Health
    Disability and Health Program
    Riverview Center
    150 Broadway, Suite 350
    Albany, New York 12204

Adapted from "Interacting with People with Disabilities,"Indiana Governor's Planning Council for People with Disabilities;"The Ten Commandments for Etiquette for Communicating with People with Disabilities," United Cerebral Palsy; and materials from the New York State Office of Advocate for People with Disabilities.

New York State Department of Health
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