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Effective workplace communication with employees with an intellectual disability


Intellectual disabilities, communication and learning

An introduction to intellectual disabilities

Intellectual disabilities

Intellectual disabilities affect a large number of people in disability employment services. The causes of intellectual disabilities are complex and varied, and the impacts are equally complex and cannot be summed up merely as 'slow learning'. The way employment services tailor themselves to meet the individual needs of people with intellectual disabilities is a key issue for support staff. Awareness of the ways an intellectual impairment affects an individual, their thought processes, communication, emotional responses, and their learning, enables planning and implementation of specific strategies to assist the person with the intellectual disability develop his or her employment potential.

What is intelligence?

Your average caveman ancestor spent his days hunting and gathering food but still had a brain capable of puzzling over quantum physics (if he'd wanted to). Human intelligence has evolved to ensure the survival of a species which lives in groups within complex social structures. Each person's brain has a similar neurological structure, but also allows for strong individual differences.

Intelligence is often taken to be a global quality that allows us to 'act rationally, purposefully and effectively'. Cognition, or thinking, consists of three main functions:

  1. Concept attainment – the use of language or other symbols to mentally represent information and allow us to organise our thinking about people, objects and ideas.
  2. Problem – solving-using learned procedures and 'lateral thinking' skills to recognise and solve problems.
  3. Reasoning – the use of inductive and deductive reasoning to arrive at logical conclusions.

Inherent biological processes prompt intelligence to develop through changes in a person's quality of thinking as they grow to adulthood. In infancy, thinking is largely undifferentiated with an all-or-none quality to it at first. By the time we are in adolescence, however, most of us will have acquired the ability to think in the abstract, and are no longer confined to actual concrete experience as an anchor for thought.

What is an 'intellectual disability'?

An intellectual disability results from difficulties a person may have in fulfilling tasks, or adapting to an environment or circumstances as a result of some impairment in their intellectual functioning.

We all have impairments in our intellectual functioning in some form, some of the time, even quite a lot of the time, according to different situations. Think about needing to estimate the cost of all the items in your supermarket basket when you've always had great difficulty with mental calculation. Or you're in a meeting where you need to attend to 2 or 3 widely differing viewpoints and it's hard for you to process information aurally. Most of us cope with such challenges because we've got to know what we can and can't do and adapt our behaviour accordingly. We can do this because, overall, our intellectual functioning allows us to make the necessary adjustments.

When intellectual functioning is impaired more severely, a person may experience significant difficulties, not just in tasks like adding up their grocery bill, but, more importantly, in the way they learn and in their transactions with other people.

The degree to which a person is disabled by intellectual impairment will be significantly influenced not only by the level of impairment experienced, but also by the degree to which specific deficits in intellectual functioning are identified and remedied. It is only by getting to know some of these specific impacts that effective ways can be found to assist the person with an intellectual disability learn and achieve.

Owing to the vast combination of causes, impairments and disabling effects, the label 'intellectual disability' is, by necessity, very broad and imprecise. Intellectual disabilities result from a wide variety of cognitive impairments which may themselves be products of a range of genetic, medical and social conditions. Whatever the cause, intellectual impairments will show up in the behaviour of individuals – frequently as deficits in learning, communication, independence and self-direction.

Fundamentally, intellectual impairments affect learning and, in turn, the social and psychological functioning of the person. These lead, in turn, to the person experiencing a disability.

What is the real issue for employment services?

Any service that aims to assist people with intellectual disabilities build work skills is involved in assisting them to learn. The more support staff know about how their workers learn, and how they can set things up so that every learning opportunity is optimised, the better will be the outcomes for the worker. Good learning does not 'just happen' most of the time. It cannot be left to chance. It requires structure and planning to work out how things are best presented for someone to learn them effectively. Above all, it requires good communication.

Let's look at some of the crucial things that have to be communicated in any workplace and consider how we can make our communication as effective as possible to assist our workers with intellectual disabilities develop their skills and potential through active and meaningful learning.

Any worker anywhere needs to learn:

Workers with intellectual disabilities need to know exactly the same things: we just need to ensure we communicate this information so workers can engage in the individual learning process that enables them to act purposefully and deal effectively with it.

The communication process

How often have you made the mistake of thinking that just because you said something to someone, they took on board what you said – and really understood what you meant by it? If only! Communication is much more than just talking. In any communication there is always a concrete, visible and/or audible level to the experience as well as an unseen, unheard and very abstract level. You can affect people, and they can affect you, without a single word being exchanged.

It helps to understand the basic process involved when we communicate.

Communication is the PROCESS of transmitting information between people and there are always three elements involved:

  1. A sender who wants to communicate something – an idea, opinion, fact or something they want to occur.
  2. A message or transmission. The sender works out what they want to say, why, and to whom. For the message to be clearly communicated, the sender must understand their purpose in sending it. Once they are clear on this, the sender needs to work out how to form the message (the words, diagrams or symbols that will best convey the message as it is intended).
  3. A receiver who gets the message, tries to work out its meaning, and then takes action on it.

Communication is only effective when the people with whom you're communicating:

Understanding is only possible in a communication when the receiver has the materials they need to interpret the message correctly. Whenever we communicate (that is, be the sender), we must find out if our message has been understood and acted on in the way we intended. The next step in the communication process is, therefore, to seek feedback regarding our communicated message. We check both verbal and non-verbal behaviours and actions to determine whether the message has got there.

This step restarts the communication process: the receiver makes a response to the fi rst message.

It pays to remember that the communication process is complex. There are many potential barriers to effective communication at each stage of the process. These include:

Whatever the reason, if the message is not received and acted upon in something close to the way the sender intended, then communication has not taken place.

Effects of intellectual disabilities on communication

Some people with intellectual disabilities find it difficult to communicate. Some common communication problems for people with intellectual disabilities include:

People with intellectual disabilities need to be shown that communication is both expected and worthwhile. No-one ever finishes learning to communicate; we constantly learn new skills and strategies in expressing ourselves. Support staff have a crucial role to play in supporting employees build their communication skills.

The learning process

Just as communication consists of much more than 'just talking', learning consists of much more than 'just being told'.

Learning can be defined as the processing of information we encounter, which leads to changes, or an increase in knowledge and abilities.

Learning is an active process. Unless the learner is engaged in the process, there can be no learning.

We all learn in a number of ways:

  1. We learn through the responses we get to our actions. This is called instrumental learning. We come to associate particular ways of behaving with particular responses we get to the behaviour. We learn to smile and say 'thank you' when someone gives us something we like, because we learn that we're more likely to be offered it again if we do so. In other words, our polite response is reinforced. People learn just as many faulty responses as they do correct ones, however, because often the faulty ones are reinforced.
  2. We also learn a great deal simply by observing and imitating what others do. This type of learning can be called modelling. People imitate, or model their behaviour on what others do because they see their behaviour reinforced.
  3. As our thinking develops, we learn to build concepts. The advertising slogan 'this goes with that' sums up what concept learning is about. Concepts make our learning more efficient. They help us order and classify things – things on which people can sit, things on which people can't sit, birds that fly, colours, blue colours, red colours, friendly faces, angry faces, and so on, infinitely. Concepts are the organisers of our incoming information.
  4. As our ability to learn concepts develops, we can start to engage in rule learning. A rule is the relation between two or more concepts. When you understand that 2 + 3 = 5, that dogs bark and that planes fly, you have learned rules. In each case the rule depends on the prior learning of the other concepts '2', '3', 'dog', 'bark' and so on. We use rules all the time in our thinking. They make it easier for us to respond to a wide range of situations and problems.

Effects of intellectual disabilities on learning

Intellectual disabilities affect both the capacity for learning and the way in which learning occurs. The learning process is very complex and individual, but it appears that the same processes apply to everyone, regardless of their intellectual level. People with severely impaired intelligence learn in the same way as people with above average intelligence. What differs is the level of learning performance:

People with intellectual disabilities can certainly learn but they will usually have more difficulty than people without intellectual disabilities. We can assist workers with intellectual disabilities learn by finding out their learning needs, and developing the best strategies to assist them learn.

There are some key things that can make learning difficult for people with intellectual disabilities.


Memory is the ability to encode, process and retrieve the information that we are exposed to through our sensory systems. As the information comes in our sensory memory tells us there's a sight or sound or touch that registers with us, we start to process what it is, and whether it's important for us to attend to it.

Many people with intellectual disabilities experience problems in their memory performance that will make learning difficult. For example, there can be problems selecting what is relevant and what's not (selective attention) of what comes in. Our short-term and working memories usually help us make the right choice, because we link incoming information to stored information in our long-term memory, updating the new information in terms of what we remember from before. Obviously, this is much harder if you have intellectual problems that prevent quick and adaptive memory recall.

Language and communication

We not only need to know what words stand for in order to use language, we also need to know the rules that link words, and the way we use words in different situations. To have communication competence, we must also know how to make the language work for us in a social interaction.

Many forms of intellectual impairment can result in language and communication problems. For instance, consider these sentences:

  1. Miriam was upset when Margaret hurt herself.
  2. Miriam was upset when Margaret hurt her

Some people with an intellectual disability would find it hard to tell you what is different between the two sentences (that is, who is hurt in sentence 1, and who in sentence 2), because they do not understand the grammatical rules that give them their actual meaning.

Reading and writing abilities

Many people with intellectual disabilities have difficulties with reading and writing. This leads to more difficulties than just those that come from not being able to read an instruction, or write their name on a form. The abilities to read and write are thought to actually assist all learning because of the connection between these abilities and our other language abilities.

Reading and writing abilities are thought to be key elements of our main functional language systems:

It appears that these functional language systems work together and help each other make the links between the systems. Thus, people who can read and write may make better sense of the information coming in (say, a spoken message – language by ear), and thus learn it more efficiently and effectively just because they've got these other systems (language by hand and language by eye) working for them to assist their understanding. Studies have shown that people who can't read or write very well may have more difficulty processing information than people who can.

Concrete thinking

It is very common for people with intellectual disabilities to be reliant on concrete supports for their thinking. They need to have objects and events on hand in order to think about them, or to be able to imagine a concrete example of them while solving a problem. Thus, thinking is confined to what has been, or is being, experienced.

Concrete thinkers cannot work with abstract ideas, especially those problems that require thinking about what things would be like if something were different from the way it is now. Mostly, we solve problems by a planned approach in which we think about a range of solutions or ideas, and test out which is likely to be best.

People who can think abstractly can speculate on any number of possibilities, but a concrete thinker cannot.

Social and psychological effects

The biggest barrier faced by anyone with any form of intellectual impairment is having their potential recognised and realised. The social and psychological impacts of an intellectual disability will be determined by the responses made to the individual's needs. Two common social and psychological impacts on the person with an intellectual disability are:

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