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Effective workplace communication with employees with an intellectual disability


Talking about tools

Almost every task a supported employee does involves the use of tools or equipment. Communicating clearly which tools to use, how to use them safely, and how to store or maintain them involves you in a mix of explaining,demonstrating and observing.

Employees need to know about the tools and equipment they use to do their job. This means knowing not just the name of a tool or piece of equipment but also that it is their responsibility to use it correctly, and ensure it is maintained properly. They need to know:

As tools and equipment are concrete objects, most employees with intellectual disabilities will have little difficulty learning their names and functions.

Don't assume, however, that they will always

Ensure employees have structured training and practice in the use of tools and equipment. Note too, that if an employee has a break from using the particular tools and equipment (because of a change in task, or absence, for example), retraining may be required. Always check to make sure.


Tanya has worked in the SpaceCake kitchen for nearly two years. For most of this time her former supervisor, Fran, had done all of the tasks that required the use of machines or equipment while Tanya and her fellow employees looked on. So, although Tanya and other employees have fetched ingredients and cleaned up, they have not learned to complete tasks independently.

Fran believed it was dangerous to allow people with disabilities to use things like electric mixers, hot plates etc. If asked, however, Tanya will say that she can use all the kitchen equipment.

From Nathan's diary

Tanya has left the small oven switched on twice this week. I don't know why she is doing this. She is certainly capable and I remind her most days. I have told her how important it is not to waste power and that there is always the potential of fire. She just doesn't seem to care.


  1. Clearly describe, and if possible demonstrate, the purpose of each tool or piece of equipment the employee will use.

You wear a hat and gloves so the pastry stays clean.

The conveyer belt is set to match the speed you and John can work at.

The pastry cutter must be held this way to cut properly.

  1. Use a mixture of information giving and questioning to make sure the employee can name the tool correctly.

This is a pastry cutter.

Show me the pastry cutter.

What is this tool called?

  1. Combine information giving with questioning and practice to confirm that the employee can demonstrate the function and use of each tool.

Please show me what you use to cut the pastry.

What do we call this tool?

Please show me how you hold it when you cut the pastry.

  1. Tell the employee what to do if the equipment or tool does not function correctly.

If the cutter is not cutting clean, call me over.

If the belt starts making a noise, use this button to turn it off.

  1. Ask questions that will let you check that the employee can demonstrate what to do if the tool or equipment is not functioning correctly.

What do you do if the pastry cutter is not cutting properly?

Show me the button that shuts off the conveyer.

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