Communicating with someone with a learning disability may make you think about your tone of voice and your body language, as well as the words you use and remind you that communication is not just about talking, but also listening.

Remember, everybody is unique, so take the time to ask the person you're communicating with what works best for them.

This information is designed to provide a brief introduction to communication and the problems faced by someone with a learning disability. It also contains tips on how you can be a better communicator, and how you can help someone with a learning disability get their message across.

What is communication?

Everyone can communicate and everyone is an individual in the way they communicate. 

There are hundreds of definitions of what communication is and how it is done.

Perhaps the simplest way of thinking about communication is that it is the passing on of information from one person to another using any means possible. 

When we speak, information is not only communicated through the words we use, but also through our tone of voice and body language. 

Having a communication difficulty

Try to imagine:

  • not being able to read this
  • not being able to tell someone else about it
  • not being able to find the words you wanted to say
  • opening your mouth and no sound coming out
  • words coming out jumbled up
  • not getting the sounds right
  • words getting stuck, someone jumping in, saying words for you
  • people assuming what you want, without checking with you
  • not hearing the questions
  • not being able to see, or not being able to understand, the signs and symbols around you
  • not understanding the words, phrases or expressions
  • not being able to write down your ideas
  • being unable to join a conversation
  • people ignoring what you're trying to say, feeling embarrassed and moving away
  • people not waiting long enough for you to respond in some way, assuming you have nothing to say and moving away.

Being a good communication partner

To be a good communicator with people with a learning disability you need to:

  • be prepared to use al your communication tools
  • follow the lead of the person you're communicating with
  • go at their pace, to check you have understood and be prepared to be creative.

Making communication work

It's important to always use accessible language, and to avoid jargon or long words that might be hard to understand. 

You should also take into account any physical disabilities the person may have that could make communication difficult for them.

  • In person: Many people with a learning disability have told Mencap that the best way to communicate with them is face to face and one to one.
  • In writing: If communicating in writing it's a good idea to use bigger text and bullet points, and to keep writing at a minimum if 16 point. It's also important to remember that too much colour can make reading harder for someone.
  • On the phone: The best way to talk to someone with a learning disability on the phone is slowly and clearly, using easy to understand words.  

Top 10 tips for communication

  1. 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.
  2. Ask open questions; questions that don't have a simple yes or no answer.
  3. Check with the person that you understand what they are saying e.g. "the TV isn't working? Is that right?"
  4. If the person wants to take you to show you something, go with them.
  5. Watch the person; they may tell you things by their body language and facial expressions.
  6. Learn from experience - you will need to be more observant and don't feel awkward about asking parents or carers for their help.
  7. Try drawing - even if your drawing isn't great, it might still be helpful.
  8. Take you time, don't rush communication.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

Further help

Many people with a learning disability can use or recognise some signs. Singalong and Makaton are both Sign Supported English systems. They are based on British Sign Language (BSL), but are used to support the spoken word. 

Download as a PDF

This information on this page is also available to download as a PDF.

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How to get the support you need

Contact the Learning Disability Helpline for advice and information about what support we can offer you.

Or why not take a look at FamilyHub? This is our online community for parents and family carers of people with a learning disability, and is a place for sharing experiences, advice and support.

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