Tips for meaningful communication

We’ve put together a list of 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.

However, there are a few simple things that you can do to support successful communication.

  • 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, but bear in mind this may be inappropriate for individuals who have sensory processing difficulties. It is good practice to use vibration, for example tapping the floor, table or chair before offering touch. For those who have some vision and hearing, you should always begin interaction by first saying the person's name; this should be done at their level and within their visual field.
  • Identify yourself clearly. This may be by saying or signing your name or offering your hand/face for the person to feel. You can also introduce yourself by offering a personal identifier for them to feel, this could be a distinctive bracelet or keyring that you always have with you to identify you. For some individuals, spelling out your name using the deafblind manual may also be appropriate .
  • Check that you are in the best position to communicate.
  • 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. Show an interest in what they are doing, looking at or holding.
  • Be aware of the environment and adapt the conditions to suit the individual you are communicating with. This will be different for different people, but may include avoiding noisy places with excessive background noise or environments that are visually busy or have poor lighting/overly glaring light, as these can make it difficult to concentrate when communicating.
  • 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 can be hard work. 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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