This month sees the return of Learning Disability Week, organised by Mencap, the national charity with the aim of raising awareness of learning disabilities and learning difficulties, and supporting those who have them, to live meaningful and independent lives in the community. In the UK, there are approximately 1.5 million people with a learning disability, of which, 351,000 are children aged 0 – 17. A learning disability is distinct from learning difficulties and MENCAP uses the definition of:
“A learning disability is a reduced intellectual ability and difficulty with everyday activities – for example household tasks, socialising or managing money – which affects someone for their whole life.” Mencap
Having a learning disability means that people tend to take longer to learn everyday things, and may need support to develop new skills, understand complicated information and interact with other people.
This is different from having learning difficulties such as ADHD or dyslexia which, although can result in people taking longer to learn some things, do not, ultimately affect people’s intellect. Many people with learning difficulties such as dyslexia, ADD or ADHD go on to lead productive independent lives, but many people with learning disabilities may need a much higher level of personal care or support for their entire life. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be productive, have goals and dreams and reach a degree of independence, because many of them can and do.
Learning Disability Week
This is Mencap’s annual campaign, running this year from the 20th – 26th June and using the hashtag #LDWeek22. It’s all about getting people to understand more about what life is like for people with learning disabilities as there is still a lot of stigma and misunderstanding which surrounds the topic. The week is aimed at:
- Educating the public and raising awareness of learning disabilities
- Smashing stigmas and ending discrimination
- Fighting and campaigning for a fair society
It is probably true to say that unless people work with, or have friends/family with a learning disability, most people do not understand what life is like for people who do. The theme this year is about “Living life with a learning disability” with the aim of showing how people are reconnecting with friends and communities after the pandemic, and highlighting some of the issues that many people with learning difficulties still face relating to feeling isolated, lonely, anxious or having poorer mental health. With this aim, Mencap are appealing for people to share their stories to help inspire and help others. They have some truly inspiring Myth Busters’ stories already on their website showing how people with learning disabilities are holding down jobs, breaking boundaries and following their dreams. They are using the tag line “Listen. Ask. Learn.”
One of the problems that many people with learning difficulties face, is communicating well with others, so we thought that rather than list ways you can get involved in the week, we would highlight some of the ways that you can improve communication with children with learning disabilities in your setting instead. And even if you don’t, some of these tips and ideas will help you communicate better with other children who may have communication challenges as well.
Communication is a two-way thing, so in order to communicate with others, it’s not just about talking, but also about listening, asking questions and really hearing what the other person is trying to communicate. This is the idea behind the “Listen. Ask. Learn.” Campaign.
We all communicate from the moment we are born, regardless of the language our parents speak and non-verbal ways of communicating are our first port of call. Our tone of voice, body language, facial expression, volume, pace and gestures, all contribute to the effectiveness of our communication. As early years specialists, we understand this because we are often dealing with children who do not yet have, or who are developing their formal language skills.
So, when communicating with children with a learning disability, try to:
- Communicate face-to-face and on a one-to-one basis
- Use accessible language
- Avoid jargon or long words that might be hard to understand
- Use a variety of different communication tools such as images, signs and gestures as well as speech
- Follow the lead of the person you’re communicating with
- Go at the pace of the other person
- Check you have understood each other by repeating things back e.g. “You want a drink, is that right?”
- Be prepared to be creative
- Be patient and take your time
- If using text, use a larger font and break things into smaller sentences or bullet points, but avoid too much colour
- If communicating on the phone, slow your pace, speak clearly with easy-to-understand language
- Consider using other language systems such as Makaton, Signalong or Widgit
Makaton signing is a language system that uses signs, symbols and speech, giving a person different options when communicating. It is unique in this respect and supports the development of essential communication skills such as attention and listening, comprehension, memory, recall and organisation of language and expression. Makaton can be used with a wide range of children including those with Down’s Syndrome, autism, cleft lip and palate or developmental language disorders. If you want to start using Makaton in your setting, visit the website where you will find lots of tips, ideas and training to help get you started.
Signalong is a key word sign-supported communication system based on British sign language and is used in spoken word order. It uses speech, sign, body language, facial expression and voice tone to reference the link between sign and word. The charity provides training and resources to assist those with communication difficulties as well as help for people with English as an additional language (EAL).
Talking Mats is a social enterprise aimed at improving the lives of people with communication difficulties by “increasing their capacity to communicate effectively about things that matter to them”. They produce innovative digital communication tools based on extensive research and designed by Speech and Language Therapists.
Widgit produce software symbols to help people communicate with recognisable symbols where you can create your own resources such as visual timetables, communication books and EAL materials. It’s a subscription site but accounts start at £5 a month for an individual user. The also run a website called Symbol World that includes nursery rhymes, stories and a monthly magazine.
If you have any questions about learning disabilities or need help or support, the Mencap helpline is available from 10am to 3pm, Monday to Friday on 0808 808 1111, or you can email firstname.lastname@example.org.