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Connecting and Communicating with the Mentally Disabled

Posted Mar 18 2009 3:54pm


Many people feel uncomfortable around those with mental disabilities. The main reason for their discomfort is the fear of doing the wrong thing and appearing stupid or insensitive.

Fear of Looking Foolish

 We tend to get set in our ways and like things to be familiar and predictable. This includes areas such as simple conversations with those around us. Communication with a mentally disabled person is often unpredictable and so we shy away from it, afraid of looking foolish, of not understanding what they are trying to say and not answering correctly.

Bridge1Building Bridges of Communication

Words are just the tip of the communication iceberg. When conversing with a person, we send myriad signals by the way we stand, the expression on our face and the tone of our voice. These form levels of communication that bypass words. When talking to anyone, remember to relax and consciously use body language in a positive manner. Even if the verbal communication is misunderstood, the body language can convey concern and interest. The person will receive the message that we are interested in them and care about their feelings.

What if I can't Understand them

If the person is with a caregiver or someone who knows them, they may help the conversation along by interpreting for them. If not, try and grasp the basics of what they are saying. It is permissible to ask someone to repeat something and even ask them to talk a little slower. In some cases, pointing and miming may bring clarity. The important thing is to persevere and make an effort to understand and communicate.

My sister, Leanne, is physically and mentally disabled and lives with my parents in South Africa. The three of them visited us in New Zealand last November to celebrate our eldest son's wedding. While Leanne was here, she attended church with us and soon realized that people were given a chocolate crunchie on their birthday. Her birthday is in late December and she kept saying she wanted to come back then so she could get a chocolate. Eventually, I asked Murray, one of the pastors if I could take her to him to get a crunchie.

When we arrived, he was sitting in his office with a basket of crunchies on his desk. I watched as they had a conversation and Murray said he'd heard her birthday was coming up soon. Leanne's speech is indistinct and becomes even more so when she's excited. When he couldn't understand her, Murray just asked her to repeat herself, slowly. When she threw her arms around him, he responded likewise. When she kissed him on the cheek, he kissed her cheek. It was the best way he could have responded and four months later, Leanne is still referring to Murray as a 'wonderful man'. 

Comments can be Inappropriate

Mentally disabled people can be quite frank and will say what they think, rather than working within socially appropriate boundaries. I think of a scene I witnessed a few months ago. I was sitting at our local bus exchange when I notice three men sitting against the wall. They had obvious disabilities but were chatting and enjoying their time together. One of the men had no hands - his arms ended like sausage rolls with the pastry pinched together at the edges. His shoelaces were undone and one of his friends helped him out by tying them. There was lots of laughter and they talked at the top of their voices. Just before my bus arrived, a male cleaner walked past them with long shaggy hair hanging over his shoulders. "Hey, mate!" one of them yelled. "You need a haircut!" The cleaner responded in the best possible way. He stopped, acknowledged the men, and  from what I could see, agreed that he did indeed need a haircut. A simple response but one that affirmed them. 

Why not make a decision this week to try and build bridges of communication with any mentally disabled person you come across. It will impact your life as well as theirs and may end up being a great blessing to all concerned.


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