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Effective workplace communication with employees with an intellectual disability


Talking about talking and listening

Whether it is verbal, non-verbal, spoken, witten or visual communication, it is all about sending and receiving messages

One of your key roles is to assist supported employees to communicate as effectively as possible. This is critical for their development as workers.

Three elements are involved in the process of transmitting information between people.

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

At each stage of the process there are many potential barriers to effective communication. These include:

Whatever the reason, if the receiver does not receive the message in something very close to the way it was meant then communication has not taken place.

Intellectual disability can make it hard for an employee to talk and listen. Some common issues are problems in the abilities to conceptualise thoughts and express them, focus attention on what is being said and make the sounds and use the speech rhythms that make language understandable to others.

No one can go to work and do their job properly without communicating with others. Supported employees should know their communication responsibilities:

Fulfilling these responsibilities requires both support staff and supported employees to use talking and listening skills.

From Em's notebook

I've just read in this new communication book that you get a lot further with people with communication difficulties if you listen and observe for 80% of the time and talk for only 20% of it.

I've been doing far too much of the talking. I even often answer my own questions! Like today when I was helping Amy do the washing:

We're going to put the washing powder in now aren't we, because this is when we put it in, isn't it? You always do it before you start the machine because it's better that way, isn't it? It stops the soap powder getting all glued together which it does sometimes, doesn't it?

Arrrrghh!! It's a wonder Amy didn't shove the soap powder down my throat. I must learn to follow the 80/20 rule. Not easy for someone born with verbal diarrhoea …

Matt's story

Matt is 28. He has only about 12 spoken words and rarely interacts with others. He will sit next to people, but turns his head away from facing them.

Matt is 'captured' by spinning things, the wheel on the labelling machine, the pallet wrapper in action. He will stare fixedly at these for as long as they go around.

To engage attention or respond to someone saying something to him, Matt holds up his index finger and says loudly, 'one'. For the first three years he was at Merrinvale, support workers would reply to this greeting by holding up two fingers and saying 'two', and sometimes going on with 'three' and 'four'. This was Matt's only social interaction in the workplace, and while it probably helped Matt feel comfortable and welcome, the strategy was not extending his communication. It was discovered that Matt understands more words than he actually speaks and that he can convey the meaning and purpose of language through other means. He points to things when asked; he will copy actions and sound patterns, and can, in subtle and individual ways, communicate some feelings.

He will say 'hello' in response to a greeting, and has started making eye contact when people say his name.

Picture of communicating between 2 people


  1. Get to know the employee. By observation, personal interaction, and speaking with others who know the employee well, find out what their level of understanding and expression are, so you can 'match' your communication styles. For example, if a supported employee says to you, 'I don't have any problems with punctuality. I'm here at 8 each morning', you don't need to talk about the big hand being on 8 and the little hand on 12 when she gets to her work bench.
  2. Use simple language and clear gestures. Speak slowly and distinctly using the same word or words to name or describe objects each time. For example say the 'pallet wrapper' each time, not the 'wrapping machine', or the 'plastic wrapper'.
  3. Encourage the employee to repeat names, terms and instructions as they are doing the task.

I'm putting the packet on the line with its open side facing up.

  1. Don't talk too much. A lot of people make the mistake of over-talking when they work with someone with an intellectual disability. The longer the stream of talk, the harder it is for the listener to process. Provide information in clear, well-spaced, short and simple sentences.

Put the syrup in now … Use the cup to measure it … Shut the lid … Push the button.

  1. Be a good listener. Listening is an active process requiring:
  1. Don't ask too many questions and never ask a question just for the sake of saying something: always have a purpose for your question.
  2. Keep them on track. Help employees keep communication purposeful by guiding them back to key points.

That's interesting but I want to know what you do with the flour mixture now.

We talked about that before. Now we're talking about …

  1. Promote reality. Sometimes a person with an intellectual disability will persist with what appear to be fantasies or highly unrealistic expectations. Often this is simply a public airing of the sort of wishful thinking everyone does but most people keep private. You can assist employees by encouraging them to have dreams and goals but, at the same time, reminding them of the fact that these are, as yet, just that.

No, you're not playing footy for Collingwood on Friday. On Friday afternoon we're having the staff versus employee football match and you're on the employee team … I bet you'll kick some goals.

  1. Always explain the purpose of your communication.

Matt, I'm going to talk to you now about how we put the labels on the can.

  1. Communicate one-to-one with the employee as much as possible. Use the individual's name to make sure they understand you are talking to them. And make sure you get their attention.

Tanya – I'd like to talk with you… I am going to show you the correct way to stack the forms.

  1. Minimise distractions to get the person's best attention and concentration. Use a separate work bench, or whatever is appropriate, so that you can be free from interruptions.
  2. Always check for understanding – all along the communication flow. You can do this by asking the employee for an explanation in their own words, or to show you. Try not to ask 'Do you understand?', because 'understanding' is an abstract concept! Instead, check by saying something like:

Will you please show me what we're going to put on the cans, Matt?

  1. Remember that poor expression does not necessarily mean poor understanding. Most people understand more than they express. Matt may not be able to say the word 'label' but can point out a label to show his understanding.
  2. Use language even with people who don't express themselves verbally. Understanding comes before the spoken word. Putting things into words helps order thinking and attend to things. Language helps people with intellectual disabilities concentrate on what they are doing.
  3. Use visual methods to substitute for or add to your verbal message. Pictures, photos, symbols and facial expressions are all very useful aids to making communication more specific and meaningful to someone who has limited language.
  4. Don't be scared to tell someone if you don't understand them.

Could you point to the label Matt?

  1. Ask questions in several different ways to clarify your understanding.

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