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Effective workplace communication with employees with an intellectual disability


Talking about changes

Change is an inevitable part of any workplace and can be uncomfortable. Talking about the changes before, during and after they happen is a key factor in how well people cope with them.

Change can create difficulties for people with intellectual disabilities because of the problem they often have in learning how to deal with the consequences of the change. Wherever possible, it pays to prepare your employees for change and set things up so that they have the best conditions in which to learn how to cope with the changes. It is also important to acknowledge that every employee will react differently to change; and that the size or extent of the changes is not necessarily going to determine their impact on an individual.

A range of things commonly change in the workplace.


Any new person in the work environment brings about a change to the group dynamic. Adding a new team member may mean individuals feel that their status has changed. Changes amongst people with high reference authority (authority through position) such as supervisors/support workers can lead to problems if they are not managed properly. Supported employees can become quite anxious if their supervisor changes – they experience a fear of the unknown. This can occur even if the relationship is not a particularly positive one – better the devil you know.


This sort of change requires learning about how to cope with a different level of authority – either your own or that of someone else. For example, an employee who moves from one task where he was responsible for a whole line, to another task where he is just one of ten people doing the same thing with no one having any greater responsibility may grieve for the old situation.


People with intellectual disabilities find it hard to transfer skills from one situation to another. Hence, task changes may be far more difficult for them to deal with than they are for people without intellectual disabilities.


People with intellectual disabilities are often very sensitive to changes to time frames, equipment, place, etc, because they rely a lot on routine, structure and familiarity. These structures and routines play a very important role in their ability to go about their own daily routines and tasks.


Raylene has recently had a change of work area. Despite being prepared for this, she seems unable to accept that Nathan is now her supervisor. She won't speak to him at all. If she wants something she gets up, leaves her work and goes all the way over to the other section where Em (her former supervisor) now works and asks her what to do.

When Em sends her back, she stomps off to the locker room where she sits sulking and refusing to come out.

If Nathan asks her to do something, she responds with, 'You're not my boss. Em is.'

Em's notebook

Everyone seems to be stressing out over the changes in the kitchen. The employees are all squabbling like mad since Raylene went in there. John and Tanya, who used to work really well together are now taking sides with either Raylene or Mirri (depending on what time of day it is) and are suddenly acting like they're arch enemies.

Yet when we discussed Raylene going in there, John, Tanya and Mirri all said it was a good idea, agreed they needed extra help and said she would be good there. So it's not as if they didn't have some say in the change.

We're being driven mad – Nathan and I – by constantly having to sort things out between them.

Fran, of course, just says it's all 'too much to expect of these people'. If Fran loves babying people so much why doesn't she go and work with some real ankle-biters!


  1. Prepare employees for change by letting them know in advance what is happening, why, how and when. Talk to them openly and invite them to ask questions and express any concerns.

Next week, Nathan is going to become your supervisor. This is because Bob likes supervisors to change around every year so that we get to know the whole company. I am going to be the supervisor for Grassed Off. Nathan will start here on Wednesday and he and I will work together with you till the end of the week. This is so I can help Nathan get to know how we do things here, and get to know you all. Now, what do you think about this?

  1. Once a change is implemented, monitor how employees are reacting to it.

Your role has changed a lot here at Pikkenpak. You worked the collator by yourself. Now you're packing hampers with the others. How is it going? Do you know what your targets are? Are you having problems with any part of the job? Are you enjoying it?

  1. Don't leave people drowning in the wake of change. Make sure there is a contingency plan for any situation where an employee is clearly unable to cope with a change.

I can see you have tried to do it the new way but it is obviously not working for you. That's okay. There's another thing we can try …

  1. Foster the notion that changes are part of life and are generally made in order to improve things. Employees are often resistant to change because of bad experiences in the past, or because they may have trouble identifying the feelings they have about the change – or the thought of it.

We are doing this to make things better. We think this is going to make our inspection lines run faster.

We've changed the layout of the cleanroom so you have more space along the workbenches.

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