The ability to communicate with others is something many of us take for granted. We have the skills and abilities to speak, and use body movements to communicate what we feel and want, when we want. Auditory skills enable us to hear what others are saying to us and visual abilities help us to see what others maybe communicating to us and give us feedback on our communication with them.

Some people with disabilities may have varying degrees of difficulty in communication. A participant with a hearing impairment relies on visual signs for communication while someone who is visually impaired relies on their auditory skills.

It is important to understand that a participant with communication impairment may not have other impairments. For example, a person with speech impairment does not necessarily have a hearing impairment or an intellectual disability. However, some people with multiple disabilities may have impairments in many areas: communication, hearing, sight, physical or intellectual.

A participant with limited communication skills often requires patience on the part of the listener and clarification of what they are saying. In this way they can make themselves understood and can usually interpret what people are saying to them. They should be encouraged to communicate using the skills that they have and, reinforcement of their ability to do so, provides the encouragement to further develop these.

When a participant is not able to communicate verbally, some other form of communication will be needed. There are a number of communication methods that may assist. Sign language may be used for people with a hearing or speech impairment. Communication aids such as a communication board or an electronic communication device may also be used.

There are basic communication strategies that should be developed during the early stages of working with a person with communication difficulties:

Find out how the participant indicates 'yes’ and 'no'. This is best done by asking the participant. Usually the physical movements of nodding or shaking the head, or pointing to words on a communication board or on a wheel chair, indicate 'yes’ and 'no'. Other methods include eye movements - up for ' yes ', down for ' no 'and hand action - open for 'yes', closed for 'no'.

If you cannot work out what the participant is trying to communicate to you, ask someone to assist you, or you may leave the person frustrated. Usually a friend or someone who knows the participant will be able to help you.

Do not be embarrassed to say that you do not understand. Sometimes speech is slurred or a participant may only have a few clear words or phrases. Usually it becomes easier to understand the participant as you get to know them.

Listen carefully as communication is a two-way process. The ability to understand a participant with a disability relies on you listening and interpreting as well as their ability to convey messages. Check with the participant and make sure that you have interpreted correctly.

Take account of the following:

  • Allow time and be patient. The participant will need time to respond.
  • Clarify and confirm what a participant is saying. Repeat what you think is being said.
  • Be clear and honest. Say if you do not understand.
  • Be respectful. The participant is intelligent and aware.
  • Avoid being patronising or speaking as though they have limited understanding.