Communicating with a learning disability
How do I support someone with a learning disability?
Communication is key when trying to support someone with a learning disability. It helps you understand their needs, wants and feelings. Communication isn’t just about talking, it’s also listening and understanding. When you’re communicating with someone with a learning disability, think about your tone of voice and your body language, as well as the words you use.
How can I be a good communicator?
To be a good communicator with people with a learning disability you need to:
- Use accessible language
- Avoid long words that might be hard to understand.
- Be prepared to use different communication tools, such as writing or sign language.
- Follow the lead of the person you’re communicating with. Use their communication language.
- Be patient. Go at the pace of the person you’re communicating with, check you have understood the other person.
- Be open with body language to show you’re listening and approachable.
What is Makaton?
Makaton is a language programme that uses signs, symbols and speech; giving a person different options when communicating. Using signs can help people who do not use speech. Symbols can help people who have limited speech, or who cannot or prefer not to sign. Makaton transforms the lives of people with communication difficulties, by giving them a way to express themselves independently. Being able to communicate eases frustration and gives people confidence and independence while they develop communication and language skills.
Who uses Makaton?
There are currently over 1 million Makaton users. Makaton can help anyone who has difficult with:
- communicating what they want, think or how they feel
- making themselves understood
- paying attention
- listening to and understanding speech
- remembering and sequencing.
It is also used by supporters of people with a learning disability, such as family, friends, carers, education staff and health professionals.
Makaton is also regularly used in mainstream schools, to support all children to develop communication, language and literacy skills. It supports integration as children with and without language difficulties can communicate, learn and play together more easily.
Makaton symbols are also widely used in public buildings such as schools, hospitals, courts and libraries to help people find their way around. So you may be using Makaton in your daily life without even knowing it!
We’ve worked with The Makaton Charity on some useful information about Makaton and how it is used. We currently run Makaton workshops. For more information contact us on 0113 235 1331 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
What are some top tips for communication?
Remember, everybody is unique, so take the time to ask the person you’re communicating with what works best for them.
In person: Many people with a learning disability prefer face to face and one to one communication.
In writing: Use bigger text and bullet points, and to keep writing at a minimum. Too much colour can make reading harder for someone as well.
On the phone: Speak slowly and clearly, using easy to understand words.
You may also find these tips useful:
- Find a good place to communicate in – somewhere without distraction. If you are talking to a large group be aware that some people may find this difficult and prefer to be more vocal and open in a smaller group.
- Ask open questions; questions that don’t have a simple yes or no answer.
- Check with the person that you understand what they are saying e.g. “the TV isn’t working? Is that right?”
- If the person wants to take you to show you something, go with them.
- Watch the person; they may tell you things by their body language and facial expressions.
- Learn from experience – you will need to be more observant and don’t feel awkward about asking parents or carers for their help.
- Try drawing – even if your drawing isn’t great, it might still be helpful.
- Take you time, don’t rush communication.
- Use gestures and facial expressions. If you’re asking if someone is happy or unhappy, make your facial expression unhappy to reinforce what you’re saying.
- Be aware that some people find it easier to use real objects to communicate, but photos and pictures can really help too.
Remember, all communication is meaningful, but you may need to work harder to understand.
What are some top tips for signing?
- Use the signs whenever you talk about the action e.g. eating and drinking happens many times a day and by using the sign and saying the word each time it will help to reinforce it
- Always say the word while making the sign
- Try to make eye contact and use facial expression
- Use clear, short sentences
- You can guide an individual’s hand to help them sign
- Encourage attempts at signing; use the sign for ‘good’ and say ‘well done’
- Encourage friends and relatives to use the signs too
- Have fun!