Tips for meaningful communication

We’ve put together these simple tips to help parents, carers, friends, colleagues and professionals to communicate with people with complex disabilities, in particular those with multi-sensory impairments.

We all communicate differently, and some of the specific methods for communicating with people with multi-sensory impairments, require specialist training and experience.

But there’s no need to feel daunted. Follow these simple tips and you’ll discover it’s not so hard to connect with someone who communicates differently to you. In fact, many of the tips will make us all better at communicating! 

Top tips

  • A friendly smile goes a long way!
  • Sign hello in sign language – raise your right hand and wave it in an arc to the right. It’s a sign that’s easily understood.
  • Say hello to the person themselves – rather than the person with them, even if it’s their support worker or interpreter.
  • Make sure you have the person’s attention before trying to communicate with them. Gently touching the top of the person’s arm is a common way of attracting their attention without startling them. If the person seems to want to engage with you, that’s great; if they prefer not to, then simply respect this.
  • Identify yourself clearly. This may be by saying or signing your name or offering your hand/face for the person to feel. If the person seems to want engage with you, that’s great; if they prefer not to then simply respect this.
  • If you are not sure how to talk to someone, and they are with another person, you could ask: `what is the best way to talk to him/her?’
  • Try to make a connection. If eye contact is difficult offer your hands for the person to touch. Respectfully mirroring the person’s facial expressions, gestures and movements can be a way of showing a person that you are listening. 
  • Be aware of the environment and adapt the conditions to suit the individual you are communicating with. This may include avoiding noisy places with excessive background noise or environments that are visually busy or have poor lighting/overly glaring light.
  • When signing consider your clothing. Where possible wear high contrast colours to your skin tone. Also, avoid wearing patterned tops as this can make it more difficult for the person to define your signs.
  • Speak clearly and a little slower, but don't shout.
  • Make your lip patterns clear without over-exaggerating.
  • Keep your face visible – don’t smoke, eat, or cover your mouth whilst speaking.
  • Use gestures and facial expressions to support what you are saying.
  • Repeat phrases or re-phrase the sentence, if necessary.
  • Be aware that communicating needs concentration and can be tiring. Take regular communication breaks.
  • Try writing things down. You might need to experiment with different sizes of letters and different coloured paper and pens. You can also use pictures, photos, drawings or objects in the environment as props to help explain or reinforce what you are saying. Tablets or phones are another good way of offering images to support communication.
  • For phone conversations, consider using a text relay service.

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