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How to speak to people with severe disabilities

Thursday, June 01, 2017
By Alex Killey 

 

Communication is one of, if not the most fundamental tools to connect, to share a message and to allow you to express your thoughts. As human beings, we communicate with one another through various forms, including body language, writing, art, and the most obvious… speaking. Expressing your voice can be a challenging and an often daunting task to some, let alone speaking to someone with a disability. As Lifestyle Coordinator at SACARE, I’d like to share my experiences on how I speak to clients who have a disability.

This is not to say, that how I speak with clients is 100 per cent perfect, it’s far from it, but as my role involves building a strong relationship with them, my communication skills are crucial.  And I know I am always learning.

Each client has different needs.  To build strong relationships, we must be honest and sincere in our endeavours. 

I will start by sharing a story about the first time I ever met with a client.

The client invited me into her home. Because of her disability I found it difficult to understand what she was saying.  I remember feeling really overwhelmed and conscious not to ask her to repeat herself.

That was my first mistake and my biggest lesson. 
 
Lesson one:
If you are unsure what someone is saying don’t pretend. This is really offensive and it shows that you are not engaging.
 
She corrected me by saying, “If you can’t understand me, ask again.” She made it clear that stuffing up wasn’t the issue but by not taking accountability for it made me look like a fool.
Since that first visit, I have made many stuff ups, but I have always been honest with my clients.  I have listened, been patient and observed their body language and I believe this is a most important skill to have as Lifestyle Coordinator.

Lesson two:
Have a sense of humour and be yourself.  This does not mean telling funny jokes if that is not your thing, but being able to laugh at yourself and not taking every situation so seriously.  Laughter is really important!

One of my first group activities was held in an SACARE facility garden, and we were using a bubble machine and bubble wands.  Most clients were participating in the activity however it was definitely losing momentum because I was really nervous and the clients were picking up on it.  The point of the activity was to increase visual eye tracking skills and hand-eye coordination. Unfortunately, the exercise was definitely not meeting its goal.
One of the participants who has an acquired brain injury and who was unable to verbally communicate, started to laugh.  Then all the other clients started to laugh. I realized that my dog Leroy had grabbed a bottle of bubbles and was eating it! To make it more hilarious, he had tried to hide the evidence, but the bubbles were cascading from his mouth! 
Leroy saved the situation and helped build my relationship with the clients by allowing us all to relax.  From this moment, I realised that it doesn’t matter if the activity does not go as well as I had planned, but a good sense of humour always helps with building relationships and opening up communication.

Lesson three:
Be kind, simple but underrated at the same time.
 
As the dictionary describes kindness, “It is the quality of being friendly, warm, gentle and caring.” Engaging everyday with kindness in your heart for yourself and for the clients is essential.  For clients, some days are more complicated than others.  They may be having a low day and that’s ok.  Don’t take it personally. If they do not feel like communicating with you, then don’t push them.  If they want to communicate with you, they will, but respecting there space in a necessity.
Every day is a new day with my clients, but I always speak to them with kindness, a good sense of humour and with honesty.
I don’t speak to the disability I speak to the person in front of me.      

Alex Killey (Lifestyle Coordinator), Will and Alice at SACARE's Kingswood