Welcome to our top tips blog for Learning Disabilities Week. This annual campaign is run by the UK charity MENCAP, celebrating disabled children and adults who have a learning difficulty or cognitive impairment. The campaign recognises their strengths and value as members of our society and highlights the rights of all disabled children and adults to have the same choices and opportunities as anyone else.
You’re Welcome Gloucestershire is an inclusive online community and we welcome and support members who have cognitive impairments. Our friendly forum is moderated to ensure that everyone is respectful and inclusive of one another, ensuring that all members understand that all contributions are valued and welcomed. Check out Our Guidelines to learn more.
We hope this post will answer any questions you have about how to welcome a person with a learning difficulty or cognitive impairment; MENCAP refers to this as a learning disability. A welcoming attitude is at the heart of being inclusive. This means that you are open and willing to work with a person to overcome any barriers they may face due to the way your venue, service or activity operates. It is important to find out more about the person and preferably meet them before making assumptions about how they might take part.
Whether you run a weekly event, are looking at expanding your sports club or want to make your meeting inclusive, this page should give you some ideas of ways to welcome someone with a learning difficulty or cognitive impairment. As a lot of this depends on different ways of communicating information, we will explore what it means to be a clear communicator in supporting people with different learning needs.
People with a learning difficulty or cognitive impairment often learn in a different way. They may take longer to process different types of information and need more time to express themselves. They may make their views and feelings known through a range of methods such as objects of reference, drawing or Makaton. Remember that no two people are the same so always ask when you’re not sure.
Where to communicate is important. People who experience barriers to learning may prefer to meet with you individually and in person. Quieter, distraction-free environments are best, so places with good lighting, temperature, and acoustics (not too echoey) are great for this.
When to communicate is also something to consider. Make sure that you have plenty of time so that you don’t feel rushed and remember that most of us have a time of day when we work best. You might not know what time works better for the other person; if in doubt, ask.
Of course, communicating in person isn’t always an option. If talking on the phone, make sure to speak clearly, use simple language and don’t talk too fast.
Written communication is often best limited to the essential, simple message. Use bullet points and large, clear font. Putting pictures alongside the text can be useful; I have seen documents which state that the starting time of an event is 1.00 pm, with a picture of a clock that also shows that time. Easy Read is a method of ensuring written language is clear, simple and paired with photos or symbols to assist with understanding. These different ways of communicating can reinforce understanding and ensure you get your message over. Find out more about EASY READ here.
MENCAP suggest that:
To be a good communicator with people with a ‘learning disability’ you need to:
use accessible language
avoid jargon or long words that might be hard to understand.
be prepared to use different communication tools
follow the lead of the person you're communicating with
go at the pace of the person you're communicating with, check you have understood and be creative.
You can also find lots more ideas from MENCAP here:
We’ve also listed some tips below from parent carers who are part of the Gloucestershire Parent Carer Forum to give you the know-how.
"Modelling or role playing what to expect can really help.”
"A social story before hand so the child knows what to expect and using this can decrease anxiety and help them manage expectations.”
They say that showing is stronger than telling and it can be helpful for someone who struggles with lots of spoken information. You could use your body language to be expressive about what you want to say. Parent carers of people with a learning difficulty or cognitive impairment often say that people find it easier to understand your facial expressions and gestures to follow what you are saying.
This works both ways. Whilst people often look to you, it’s also important for you to watch and listen carefully to what they are telling you. If they look like they want to show you something, follow them and take the lead from them about how they want information given to them.
“Consistent boundaries and routines where possible.”
"Having structured activities and routines really helps - a sports hall full of chaos is overwhelming. Formal ways to start and end sessions helps with familiarity."
Consistency is key. If you regularly work with someone who has a learning difficulty or cognitive impairment, keep the way you communicate with them as similar and structured as you can. The familiarity can help them feel more comfortable.
“Use of makaton / simple language / PECS for specific activities, such as sit down, stop etc.”
“Opportunities for a quick cool down and moment to break away and have processing time or time to be calm / regulate between activities.”
It’s good practice to check in with the person you are talking to – and yes, this is your permission to ask any questions you might have. You can check that you have understood correctly by repeating what you think you have heard back to them. For example, you could say something like “you would like the chocolate biscuit, is that right?”
"My teenager attends explorers club and the leader sends out an email to me a week before each session to explain what will happen during the next activity or the rules of a game so that she has time to process the information in advance."
It’s all in the Prep. People with different learning needs find it helpful to come prepared. You can help with this by sending out information in advance and telling them what you would like to talk about beforehand. This gives them more time to think about what they want to say, and it helps to manage their expectations and any concerns they might have.
The more prepared you are, the easier it will be to communicate. Think about what you want to say and how. If you know who you will be communicating with, find out as much as you can about the person’s needs, bearing in mind that no two people are the same. Engaging with You’re Welcome Gloucestershire and reading this guide is a great start.
People with a learning difficulty or cognitive impairment are often some of the most creative, innovative, and rewarding individuals, who create new ideas and help to move projects forward through their outside the box thinking. Being welcoming and inclusive of disabled people will benefit you and your organisation in ways you could never have anticipated.