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Effective workplace communication with employees with an intellectual disability


Talking about problems

Developing problem solving skills will assist supported employees to participate effectively in the workplace. You will need to use a range of communication techniques to help them to do so.

Much of your communication with employees with intellectual disabilities will be about solving problems and making decisions. These skills are often very difficult for workers with intellectual disabilities to attain.

The starting point of any problem solving or decision making process is recognising there is a problem or issue. This capacity may be very limited for some employees, particularly where there is a behavioural problem. What you may define as a problem behaviour in an employee may be just his or her usual way of responding, something they've done for years and have never seen as causing any difficulty.

All too often, support workers tend to solve problems for employees, rather than letting them have a go at doing it themselves. You are in a good position to assist employees with intellectual disabilities improve their problem solving skills, especially those that occur within the workplace because you have some scope to:

It will be helpful to train employees to:


It doesn't take long to get Kate talking about her plan to join the police force and become a detective like her brother, Kim. This has been going on for as long as she has been at Merrinvale. All you have to do is say 'how are you, Kate', and she is off. 'Did you know that I am going to join the police force ... I'm going this week to do the exam to get in …' If you try to reason with her, or 'steer' her away from the topic, she can become quite sullen and bad tempered.

From Mai Lin's Notes

I was amazed today to find Jasper hadn't done any vacuuming for the last three days. He's our best worker yet he often makes this sort of mistake. He's responsible for the cleaning, so it's a problem.

I asked him why he'd forgotten and he just got angry and walked off, as he so often does when he's challenged over something. Now he's gone to Fran's area – says he'll only work where he's appreciated.

I was even more amazed though by Ivana's response. She heard it all because she had just finished her cleaning round. After Jasper stormed off, Ivana said, 'He always forgets things, Mai Lin. I reckon he'd be better if you gave him a set of pictures of all his jobs so he can follow it … he can't read, you know.' I thought Jasper could read. He's always had a written list of his duties.

From Em's notebook

Kate is a good worker. She's naturally sociable, but drives everyone mad with her one topic of conversation – how she's joining the police force. I've noticed people avoiding her, including at lunchtime and breaks. She often looks lonely and spends a lot of time just sitting by herself in the locker room.

Bob had a chat with Kate's mum and she has recommended something that works for them at home. She calls it their 'don't open the gates strategy'. We're going to try it here.

Instead of starting a conversation the way most people do – 'Hi Kate. How are you?' and her saying 'Did you know I'm going to join the police …' Kate's mum suggests we open conversations with Kate on a specific topic (NOT the police). So we get in first by saying something like, 'Did you hear Australia won the cricket on Saturday, Kate' and she can't 'open the gates' on the police force. That way we can maybe increase the range of things she'll talk about.


  1. Use questions to encourage employees to learn to define the problem or problems.

What makes you think there is a problem?

Where/how/when/why is it happening?

With whom is it happening?

How important is it?

What does it have to do with you?

  1. Help employees use their verbal and reasoning skills to look at potential causes of the problem.

What do you know about this problem?

What do you and others think about it?

Let's describe the cause of the problem in terms of what's happening, where, when, how, with whom, and why. (Don't ask for all of this at once).

  1. Use a diversity of communication methods and settings to help the employee consider different ways to solve the problem.

Let's get together and discuss ideas for how we might fix this problem.

We'll let everyone involved have a say and listen to all the ideas.

  1. Present the possible solutions to the employee then encourage them to consider the advantages and disadvantages of the one they choose.

Which way will be most likely to fix the problem?

Can we do this now?

Is there any problem involved in taking this step to fix it?

Do we need any extra help to do this?

  1. Assist the employee put the solution into action.

What steps do we need to take to fix the problem this way?

How will we know if the steps are being followed?

Who will check if the steps are being followed?

  1. Help the employee monitor the implementation of the action.

Are we seeing the changes we'd hoped to see?

Is the plan going to work?

Is the problem getting better?

  1. Help the employee evaluate the problem-solving.

Are things better than they were?

Is the problem definitely gone now?

What can we do to avoid this happening in future?

What did we learn from this problem-solving?

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