Communication is often something we take for granted. According to Mencap’s leaflet on communicating with people with a learning disability, the way people communicate is made up of 55% body language, 38% tone of voice and 7% words. Being good at communicating with different people takes into account, not just what we say, but how we say it and in turn, listening to other people when they talk and not only hearing the words, but also the intentions behind them.

Woman in shop at counter with cashier

People with a learning disability can find communication difficult – struggling to find the right words, feeling that words come out all jumbled up, people ignoring what you say, taking a long time to formulate a response and by that time most people have assumed they didn’t have anything to say, not being able to understand what someone else is saying and find it difficult to join a conversation. Communicating with someone with a learning disability becomes a lot easier with the Mencap’s Ten Top Tips. I have taken the liberty to expand on their tips with some further suggestions specifically focused on casual conversation or business situations where you are meeting with someone with a learning disability often for the first time.

Top Tips

Find a good place

Take your surroundings into account. I think the best place to have in-depth conversation is quiet with little distractions for a one-to-one conversation. If you cannot choose the environment, for example if you are providing someone with directions in the middle of a busy city or making small talk at a bus stop, be aware that noise as well as visual distractions can make communication harder and try to compensate for that if possible. For example, if there is a lot of road noise, move to a slightly quieter spot away from a busy road.

Take your time

Never rush. Talk slower than you normally would and give the other person a chance to respond. Don’t keep talking when they don’t. Just wait until they do. Speak clearly and be direct.

Ask open questions

Open ended questions are always a good strategy to follow in any conversation. I like using the FORD technique in conversation and I think it is an excellent strategy to follow when talking to someone with a learning disability. The FORD Technique suggests asking people about four things: Family, Occupation, Recreation and Dreams. Remember to talk normally, but use every day words and avoid jargon.

Use gestures and facial expressions

Use your facial expressions and body language to match the message you are trying to convey. If you are asking someone if they are unhappy, make your facial expression unhappy.

Front page of Mensa leaflet with text "Your guide to Communicating with people with a learning disability"

Watch the person

Body language makes up a large percentage of communication, use it. Another person’s body language can often tell you a lot about what they are saying or trying to say.

Check that the person understands what you are saying

It isn’t always easy to know whether someone else has understood what you were saying. Avoid conversation spiralling into confusion by checking if the person you are talking to understood what you were saying and vice versa. The easiest and most natural way to do this is to repeat their words with a question mark. Did you say that the bus is going to be 20 minutes late? Did you ask me for directions to the nearest cinema?

If the person wants to take you to show you something, go with them

People with learning disabilities can find it easier to communicate by showing you something instead of trying to just describe it. If it is appropriate to the situation, let them show you. This is often a good strategy in a familiar environment. Sometimes they may have a drawer or idea written on a piece of paper, encourage them to show you their paperwork and use it to make communication easier.

Try drawing

Drawing can be easier to understand than words sometimes. If possible, draw as you explain something. Draw a quick map on a piece of paper, make use of a whiteboard at work and outline what you are saying as you are saying it with icons and drawings. Don’t worry about how well you can draw, it doesn’t matter.

Be aware that some people find it easier to use real objects to communicate but photos and pictures can really help too

Make good use of props when communicating. If possible, when talking match your language to the environment. For example, on a playground, walk to the swings when asking “would you like to go on the swings”. Point to related objects and if possible, demonstrate actions when talking about how to do something. If it isn’t possible to have actual objects at hand, make use of pictures and photographs.

Learn from (someone elses) experience

Don’t be afraid to ask for advice on how to communicate better. Mencap suggests asking parents or carers for their help. That’s great, but ask the person you are talking to first and foremost. Many people with learning disabilities will be able to tell you if you are on the right track. Just keep it simple. Ask for feedback “how am I doing so far? Am I making sense to you?”

Source: Mencap: “Communicating with people with a learning disability”