Last week I was in Tim Horton’s when I saw a man trying to order a coffee but he was struggling because of a communication disorder. He was having a difficult time being understood by the Tim Horton’s employee and needed help getting his money out of his wallet because of physical difficulties. Although the people around him – both the employee and bystanders – all seemed to want to help the man they were all hesitant and did not seem to know what to do or how to help this man.
One of our jobs as speech-language pathologists is to advocate for those with
communication disorders. As part of that we try to increase awareness and knowledge on how to interact with people in the community who have various communication disorders. This may include people with disabilities (cerebral palsy, developmental disorders), people who have had a stroke or head injury, people with dementia (such as Alzheimer’s), people who communicate with assistive technology/computers, or people with speech that is difficult to understand. Here are some communication tips that you can use with almost any kind of communication difficulty:
First and foremost – always be respectful and ask the person if they would like your assistance! Remember: a communication disorder does not mean they are unintelligent!!
To help the person understand you:
- Keep your messages short and to the point (for example: say “Do you want help?” not “I noticed you’re trying to order and I thought that I could help by…)
- Wait! They may need more time to process the information
- Keep your message short but grammatically correct so they do not feel that you are insulting them (for example: do not say you….help….get….coffee??”)
- Repeat if necessary or try to say your message in a different way
- If they are still having difficulty understanding you, use gestures (pointing to objects or locations) or use objects around you (if they don’t understand “what size coffee do you want?” show them the different sized cups)
- If open ended questions are difficult (“what do you want?) give choices (“do you want a drink or something to eat?” “do you want coffee or tea?”)
To help the person express themself:
- Give them specific feedback on what you did not understand. Instead of just saying what?” try saying “you want a coffee, what do you want in it?”
- As explained above – if they are still struggling have them gesture, use objects around the room, or give them choices
- If they are using assistive technology – wait for them to finish creating their message. Avoid reading their message over their shoulder or guessing what they might be saying.
- Most importantly – be patient, give them time, and don’t give up!
Speech-Language Pathologist, Reg. CASLPO The Speech Therapy Centres of Canada www.speechtherapycentres.com