Interacting with Intellectually Disabled Adults

People with learning difficulties (sometimes known as “learning disabilities”) is the term used to cover a wide range of impairments. People with Downs Syndrome, people who’ve had a head injury and may have problems remembering and retaining information and people who have dyslexia are all included within this group.

It is estimated that 20-30 percent of people with learning disabilities also have a physical disability; and 15-30 percent have epilepsy.  Approximately 30-40 percent of people with a learning disability also have some degree of sensory impairment that may compound their learning disability.

The terms ‘learning difficulties’ or ‘intellectually disabled’ have replaced the term ‘mentally handicapped’. People with learning difficulties are perfectly able to learn, but they will sometimes have problems processing information at the same speed or in the same way as non-disabled people.  Today many people with learning difficulties are living in the community and leading full, independent lives.

People with learning difficulties may:

  • Have problems reading complex documents or technical language.
  • Require information in plain English, which is jargon free.
  • Use signs, symbols and pictograms rather than relying on the printed word.
  • Want help and a little extra time to fill out forms or other complex documents. Some may prefer to take forms home overnight, or to bring a friend to help them.
  • Become a little flustered if they do not understand what you are saying.

How you can support people with learning difficulties:

  • Be patient and start by believing you will be understood.
  • Use simple straightforward language whenever possible.
  • If giving directions or instructions, check that you have been understood.  One way of doing this is to ask the person to repeat the instructions you have given them. This should be done sensitively and with respect.
  • Offer to show people how to do a task, or where something is, rather than simply giving the information.
  • Be willing to read documents and to help people fill out forms etc.
  • Write down your name and telephone number, and suggest the customer thinks it over and speaks to you personally at another time.
  • Whilst keeping language simple it is important to treat people with respect, as adults and not as children. For instance, were a person with learning difficulties to ask your advice on a particular product or service assist them with the same level of courtesy and patience you would any customer. Feelings of hurt and embarrassment when we are talked down to are the same for us all, whether or not we have learning difficulties.