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Effective workplace communication with employees with an intellectual disability


Talking about quality and quantity

Quality and quantity are abstract concepts. If you need to talk about either with people with an intellectual disability you'll need to put them into more 'concrete' terms.

Disability employment services must operate as viable businesses, competing with other businesses to make revenues to enable them to employ and pay their workers. To do this, they must set and achieve productivity targets and ensure the quality of the goods and services they provide meets their customers' expectations.

All employees need to know:


Quality means that the product, service, process, or outcome meets the standard set or expected by the user or consumer.

When you are communicating with employees with intellectual disabilities about the abstract concept 'quality' you need to:


Similarly, you can assist employees to understand productivity requirements by bringing the abstract 'quantity' down to the simpler and more concrete 'how much' or 'how many'. It is very important for people with an intellectual disability to be clear about what they will be doing over a set period of time. Some people with an intellectual disability also have difficulties with numeracy, or find it hard to keep track of the numbers going through.

Again your communication should:


Six months ago, Raylene moved from Pikkenpak to SpaceCake where she quickly learned the tasks on the pastry making line. Her productivity shot up (from 20% to 35%) and she is very consistent in her quality control.

However, there is a problem. If the work stops for any reason, or there is any problem with the flow of goods on the conveyor, Raylene won't do anything about it. She simply stops, cradles her face in her hand, and stares ahead. She has even fallen asleep on some occasions. Nathan has tried putting Raylene to work with several other, more active and assertive employees, but nothing seems to work: when the task stops, so does Raylene. Naturally, this impacts on productivity – both at the individual and team level.

From Nathan's diary

I'm a bit disappointed in Mai Lin and Ivana. I have spent a lot of time talking to Ivana about the importance of quality. I have told her over and over again that she has a responsibility to make sure the quality of her work is of the highest standard. Today, she was supposed to mop the cool rooms and I found her using the wrong mop. She'd also forgotten to put the liquid cleaner in the water. I said, 'What did Mai Lin instruct you to do, Ivana?' She just looked at me. 'Is this a quality job, you've done?', I asked her. No response. I said, 'Why is quality so important?' She looked at me and said nothing.

Mai Lin will have to put someone else on cleaning. Ivana's just not motivated to do a quality job.


  1. When you are clarifying the tasks for the employee, use diagrams, written lists, photographs, as appropriate.

Today, you'll be working with Tanya, making sure the pastries get labelled as they come through on the line … Here's the list of what you have to do (go through the list) ... And this photograph shows how the label should look.

  1. Ask questions that will confirm that employees understand the set tasks for the day.

What are the main tasks you will be doing today in this section?

  1. Refer to samples or photos when you are clarifying the standard that is expected of the task.

This is a sample jar that shows the correct way to put the labels on. See, the label is fixed so the sign for 'Fish n Dips' is at the top? And the label is sitting straight? Now look at the back of the jar. See how the two black lines meet where the label is joined? Your labelled jar must match this one exactly.

  1. Involve the employee in the discussion about why the product standard must be met.

We must make sure the jars are correctly labelled because our dips are sold in supermarkets. You wouldn't buy them if they looked untidy would you?

  1. Ask the employee to demonstrate they understand the quality standard.

Show me how you know if you have folded the forms correctly.

  1. Ask 'why' questions. Listening to the answers lets you check if employees understand the reasons for the standard.

Why is it important that you sweep up all the grass clippings on the path?

  1. Make sure the employee knows the amount of work that is expected or the quantity that he/she is expected to produce, and within what time frame.

Mark, this morning we have to mow and edge this lawn and weed the two garden beds near the front door. We'll do the weeding before morning tea and the mowing and edging after morning tea and before lunch … When are we going to be finished the weeding?

  1. Explain the aids and cues that employees can use to assist them monitor their production.

Your jars will go into this pack when you have labelled them. At the end of each session, I will come and help you count how many you've done. We'll write down the number in your diary and that way we can check next week to see if you're getting faster.

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