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Effective workplace communication with employees with an intellectual disability


Talking about the job

Giving clear instructions is a critical skill to have when you are supporting employees withan intellectual disability

Supported employees (like all workers) need to know what they are required to do. They need to know and understand:

Employees with intellectual disabilities may need to be given this information more than once. Depending on the level of disability you may need to repeat the information daily, even when the same work is being done each day.

Your focus when you are talking about the job is giving instructions that ensure that the job is done to the standards (quality, quantity, safety, etc) that have been set. For this reason you need to consider the communication needs and abilities of the particular supported employee. These may include needing to be shown as well as told what to do, needing very concrete information (bend your knees when you pick up the box) not abstract statements (remember the manual handling rules) or being left with ongoing reminders like a sample to copy (this box has the toys in it in the order you have to put them in).

To check that your message about the work has been received you need to ask the supported employee to feed back what they have heard. This can be verbal or, particularly for people with limited verbal skills, a demonstration of the task.


Betty often appears to get instructions muddled. For example, if she has been asked to lay out the markers for collating the tax packs, she might well be found sorting envelopes in the mailhouse.

Em now tests her communication with Betty in the following way:

EM Betty, can you lay out the markers for the tax packs please.


EM Can you tell me what I just asked you to do?

BETTY Lay out markers

EM Lay out markers where?

BETTY The tax pack line ...over there.

EM That's right. I'll come and see how you're doing in ten minutes.

From Nathan's diary

I am having a lot of trouble getting Raylene to remember all the hygiene requirements of her job.

Today I had to talk to her for a long time again:

I said to you yesterday, do you remember, I hope you do because we talked about it for a long time, but of course I know you have a bit of trouble remembering things, so don't worry if you have forgotten because we'll go through it again. Anyway, as I was saying, it is very important that this area is kept totally clean so you must ensure you always follow the correct food handling procedures …

I turned away for a few minutes and next time I looked back she's there without her gloves. I think it's just laziness really because she knows – she's been told often enough.


  1. Clarify the whole task at the start.

We're making pastry cases today Tanya. The pastry comes along the line. You have a box of foil containers beside you. You and John cut the pastry sheets into circles with the round cutter. I'll show you how and then you can have a go. Then you put each circle of pastry in a foil container. I'll show you how. Then you put them on the conveyer and they go through the oven to get cooked.

  1. Clarify the purpose of the task. It increases job satisfaction when people know the 'end' result of their work.

We make the pastry cases and then they're sold in supermarkets. People buy pastry cases to put apple or custard in to eat.

  1. Tell the employee how this contributes to the business.

We make over 7,000 pastry cases every week. The money we get from selling them helps pay your wages.

  1. Ensure the employee knows the timeline of the task.

We need to make at least 1,000 every day. You and John together need to make around 100 every hour. That's 50 each.

  1. Use concrete examples to make sure the employee understands the production rate and timelines.

Each big box holds 100 pastry cases. You'll know you've done 100 when a box is full and stacked on the pallet. You can see it's 5 to 8 now, so around 9 o'clock the first box should be ready and you'll know you've done 100. We'll check the time when the first box comes off and see how we're going.

  1. Give the employee a cue to remind him/her about rate and time.

Look at the clock and when it's getting close to 9 o'clock, check if the box is nearly full.

  1. Tell the employee other key points about the job.

You and John take turns cutting and filling. Today John will start cutting and you'll fill the containers. You and John will change over after 8.30, and you will cut.

  1. Clearly describe the required standards.

Each pastry circle must go into the container without any cracks or breaks. You must check each filled container against the photo to make sure it is the same. If it doesn't look exactly the same, it's a reject. Rejects are put into the plastic bin beside your bench. If you're not sure you must come and tell me.

  1. Clearly describe what to do if there is a problem.

If the conveyor makes a noise press the 'stop' button straight away and call me over.

  1. Tell the employee what to do when the work is finished.

When the pastry stops coming along the conveyor, that lot is finished. Come and get me to check over what you have done.

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