Skip to content

Table of contents | PDF Library

Effective workplace communication with employees with an intellectual disability


Talking about learning

Assisting people with intellectual disabilities to learn new skills, new routines or new behaviours requires particular communication skills.

All employees, including those with intellectual disabilities, need to know that they are continuously learning the skills of being a worker. Everyone has to learn these skills and go on learning to develop new skills and learn new tasks. You need to assist supported employees to understand their role as learners and why it is important to learn and keep on learning work skills.

  1. Work shows other people we are independent adults.
  2. Going to work shows other people that we are productive members of the community.
  3. Work is a chance to learn and develop skills.
  4. Through our work, we set ourselves goals for getting better at things.
  5. When we see ourselves getting better at things, we feel better about ourselves.
  6. When we work well, we contribute to our organisation and that means everyone gains.

People learn best when they take an active part in the learning process. To assist a person with an intellectual disability to learn you must get them engaged right from the start. Like any learners they need to know:

Today you're going to learn how to put the labels on the jars of dip.

Yesterday you checked the labels before the dips were packed didn't you? And you noticed that some jars had the label on the wrong way up. Well, they should have been fixed up here in the section. That's part of our job.

Today we'll concentrate on two things. First, we'll make sure the jars come off the line the right way up. Second, we'll put the label on so that it's straight and fixed firmly to the jar.

Stay with me and watch everything I do. Then I'll go over anything you want me to slowly and you can ask questions. After that, you can have a go.

I'll watch you and tell you how you're going. Does that sound OK to you?

A person with an intellectual disability faces some particular challenges as a learner. One that you may encounter quite frequently is the person having trouble generalising learning from one situation to another.

Generalisation is learning to give similar responses to similar events – or to transfer learning from one situation to another similar but not identical situation. It involves delving into our memory of how we behaved in response to some event that seems like this one, and using that response in the new situation. Not being able to generalise or transfer learning easily means that every new event requires learning from the beginning.

Other supported employees may find it hard to do tasks with more than one dimension – for example classifying objects by shape and colour – because their intellectual disability prevents them paying attention to more than one aspect of the task at the same time.


Kate has worked in Pikkenpak for over two years. Even though many of the jobs that come into the warehouse are very similar, she always takes a long time to learn anything new. It's a real problem because the warehouse section relies on quick turnaround for its contracts. There are other employees like Kate who learn a task more quickly and are able to do it, but make a complete mess of something new that comes in that is almost exactly the same.

Em's notebook

I've learned there's no point saying This is the same as we did last week, to Kate, and then expecting her to just do the job. I have to take things slowly with her.

This week, sorting the order forms should have been easy for her because it's virtually the same task as the Lotto forms we did last week. Not to Kate, though. For her, it's entirely new. I wonder if it's because the order forms are blue and A4 size rather than yellow and A5?

I think I might try a photo book showing her doing similar tasks and then pointing out what's the same and what's different for the new tasks. I'm hoping this might help her learn new things quicker.

Amy's story

Amy is learning the tasks in Pikkenpak. She is having a lot of difficulty completing a current task where she has to pack kitten toys in display boxes. The task has to be done according to size, colour and shape (mouse and turtle). She can discriminate between the two colours, the two sizes, and identify the mice and turtles. Each display box she packs has a section which holds one small and one large mouse , and one small and one large turtle, each of alternate colours.

Amy is unable to work with all three dimensions of the task at once, to pack them correctly in the display boxes. She has a sample to match her packing against but still usually packs all purple turtles and mice, or all blue. They are often incorrectly sized, too, so that one pack may have only small toys, while others will have only large.

Although Amy has the concepts for each of the single characteristics of the toys (that is, size, shape and colour concepts), she cannot work with all three at the same time to order and classify them.


  1. Make sure you have the learner's full attention and that you explain what is going to happen.

I'm going to show you how to fold the forms, Kate. I want you to watch carefully while I go through it step by step. Then you can have a go.

  1. Always try to relate any new learning to something you know the person already knows well, can think about, and act upon.

This is like the blue forms we folded last week. Do you remember? You folded them in three folds. We fold these new ones three times, too.

  1. Show the person how the new task is similar to the previously learned one, and how it is different.

We fold these three times like the ones last week, but these have to be folded up this way.

  1. Present material in small steps each with clear objectives as to what is to be learned or accomplished.

We fold the forms three times. We have to make sure each fold is straight so that the form fits the envelope and opens out correctly. You're going to learn how to do it. I'll show you how to do each fold and then put it in the envelope in the correct way.

  1. Provide clear feedback immediately when the employee completes a step.

That's right – you folded it straight along the first line.

  1. Ask 'fact-oriented' questions that you can link to concrete objects or situations, and keep them simple and short.

Will you wear gloves to do this job?

Which stack do you go to to get the yellow forms?

  1. Encourage the employee to talk about the task and tell you how well they understand the task by using open ended questions.

What do you think you should do when you see that the form isn't fitting smoothly in the envelope?

How do you feel about doing it by yourself?

  1. Avoid leading questions that the employee may not want to answer accurately.

Do you understand?

You see that don't you?

  1. Let supported employees learn through their own mental activity. You can't just shovel learning into someone's head. They have to do for themselves. Learning is a set of internal processes and needs the mental participation of the learner. Always make sure the employee is actively involved, demonstrating what is being learned as they learn it, and asking and answering questions.

OK Kate, while I'm explaining how to sort the forms, you can show me how to do it.

(In response to a question) Yes Amy, you can put a small blue turtle in that space.

  1. Allow time for new knowledge to sink in

Learning needs time to be turned over in our minds while we make associations and link the new learning to something we already know. Always make sure employees have time to think about, practice and remember the new learning so that knowledge is consolidated.

Well done Kate. You've learnt to sort the forms. You'll be doing this job till lunchtime. I bet you'll be working really quickly when I come back then.

  1. Make sure the physical conditions are suited to learning

Try to ensure the environment in which new learning is occurring is as free from distractions as possible, as well as physically comfortable.

Matt, let's go over to this table where its quiet while you're learning to fold these forms.

  1. Make learning as concrete as possible

It is very easy to forget the problems some employees have with abstract thinking and learning, and to go on using expressions (for example, 'inappropriate'), and concepts (like 'quantity') that are like a foreign language to them. Link new tasks, and the terms you use to explain them, to what is clearly available to the employee within their range of experience (and try NOT to ask, 'Do you understand?').

Mark, can you tell me how many scoops of soil you put in each pot? When you have filled up 6 pots put them on the bench so Trish can plant the bulbs.

  1. Encourage questioning

Ask learners to question whether something is correct or not, and help them apply appropriate tests.

Let's look at some of the pastry cases in this box John. Does this one look like the picture? ... That's right, it does. Can you see any that don't look like the picture? ... Well done, what's wrong with that one?

  1. Help them focus on different aspects of the task

Some employees may find it hard to think about more than one aspect or dimension of a task or problems at the same time. Help them keep focused on all the features they need to consider. Wherever possible, use real objects, diagrams, photos etc to aid verbal explanations of the different aspects of something.

Amy you need to put 6 turtles in each box – 3 big ones and 3 small ones. They all need to be different colours. See? Like in this picture? You try now while I'm here to watch you ... Well done. I'll come back in about 10 minutes to see how you are going. Don't forget to keep looking at the picture.

Return to top