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Effective workplace communication with employees with an intellectual disability


Talking about futures

The employment planning process requires supported employees to think about the future. You may need to work with them to help them make the abstract concept 'future' something concrete that they can understand.

The future is an abstract concept and, therefore, one that people with intellectual disabilities will find quite hard to understand. Take the individual employment planning process, for example.

When a service works with an employee to develop an Employment Plan, it can be hard getting the employee to make a meaningful contribution. The much used tactic of setting 'goals' with employees – 'what would be a goal you'd like to set for the next year?' – often becomes a rote like process with little real contribution from the person supposedly setting the goals.

To get employees with intellectual disabilities genuinely involved in thinking about and planning for the future, we have to, first, determine what is their understanding of the future, and, second, provide concrete 'anchors' from which they can build a meaningful and realistic plan.

To achieve independence in the workplace, and to have a say in planning what they are going to do, people need to have an adequate future orientation. This orientation towards the future underpins people's ability to understand:


Kate has just had her planning meeting with her supervisor and theTraining Manager. Merrinvale offers its employees an accredited training course – Certificate I in Work Skills, and Kate's participation in this course was discussed at the meeting. Kate chose to do the course over the next year. She is now delightedly telling people she is doing the police entry course at work and will, therefore, be ready to go into the police force at the end of the year. For Kate, her dreams appear to be coming true.

Em's notebook

I was really proud of Amy today. She had her Planning Meeting. Her mother and her support worker from the accommodation service came along. We talked about what Amy wanted to do over the next six months.

At first she had very little to say as Nathan went through all the goals that she set last time. I don't think Amy even remembered those things. Sue (from CosyHome) talked about Amy not putting enough effort into things and that they hoped she'd be 'more motivated' in the future. Her mum amazed me by coming right out and saying, 'Of course although she's 33 she is really much less mature than our seven year old grand-daughter.'

Anyway, after much going on with 'would you like to try out' this, or this, or that (like she was having to pick something from a menu), Amy suddenly lifted her head and looked at everyone and said, 'I want to work on the doors at Frameup. They do measuring there and I'm good at measuring.'


  1. Remember that the thinking of an employee with intellectual disabilities may be confined to what has been or is being experienced, rather than what might be in the future. Provide real examples, and pin them to actual experience, to assist the employee think about the future event.

Your pay is now $117 a week. If you get your productivity up you could earn an extra $40 a week. What are some things you could do with an extra $40?

  1. Thinking about the future depends a lot on our ability to build realistic time concepts – something that is often limited by intellectual impairments. Assist employees build more effective time concepts.

We will take two days to do this. That means we will be doing it all of Tuesday and all Wednesday. Can you tell me about some other jobs that have taken two days from start to finish?

It's going to take about half an hour to do that. That is the same amount of time as you have for your lunch break.

  1. Remember that employees with intellectual disabilities may have had little chance to build a concept of their future, and may have been discouraged from doing so. They might feel they have very little influence over what happens to them. Employees need to know they have an active role in shaping their work future, and that they can get assistance doing this from your service. Your communication should focus on the role of the service in supporting people to have a fulfilling future.

Trish, we are going to sit down and have a Planning Meeting today. Do you remember our last planning meeting when you said you wanted to work outside more? And that you moved over to the mowing team from the greenhouse team after it? Do you want us to think about another new area you could work in so you can learn new things – because we will if you want us to?

You're 64 now John. Most people who are 64 are thinking about retiring – you know, not coming to work everyday. They're going to teach someone else to do their job so they have time to learn to do other things they want to do. What would you like to learn to do?

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