Communicating with parents with an intellectual disability

Parents with intellectual disability may have developed a range of strategies to hide the fact that they don’t understand questions or the answers required, or that they can’t think through the issues quickly when put on the spot. In particular, they may say ‘yes’ to questions or agree with statements, regardless of what has been asked.

The strategies described below can help ensure that information is presented in a way that parents can understand, and that they are given the opportunity to express their views to you as their legal representative. We have developed a set of fact sheets for parents about care and protection.

To access them, see Fact sheets for Parents. **link to Fact sheets for parents**. You can enhance the effectiveness of your communication with parents with intellectual disability by:

  • Checking regularly that parents understand what they have been told **link to that section**
  • Using communication strategies that promote understanding **link to that section**
  • Organising appointments in ways that accommodate parents**link to that section**

Check the parent understands

It is important to check regularly that parents understand the questions they are asked and information they have been given. By doing this, you can get the most out of your meetings with your client and ensure that you have the best possible understanding of their instructions. It also helps you to familiarise yourself with how best to communicate with the parent and to understand any special needs that they may have.

To ensure a parent understands:

  • Always speak directly to the parent, not to a friend, family member or support person. A support person can advise you if they think the parent does not understand what is being said.
  • Start at the beginning of the interview by asking simple questions that require brief factual responses.
  • Check before moving onto a new topic that the client has understood the key points from the issue you have discussed.
  • Use questions to check understanding.
    • Avoid ‘yes/no’ questions and ask the client to tell you in their own words what you have said.
    • Where information has not been understood, explain again, emphasising correct information, and check again.
  • Watch out for signs that the parent is giving you the answers that they think you want.
  • Use graphics and visuals to help communicate your point.
    • For example, when explaining what will happen at Court, sketch the courtroom on a piece of paper and show who will be in courtroom, where the parent will sit etc.
  • If the parent appears to have difficulty understanding what is being said, or explaining themselves, ask them if there is anything else that can be done that would make it easier for them.
    • For example: ‘Would you like me to ask for your support person?’
  • At the end of the session check that the client understands the key points from the session, and that they can tell you the things they need to do before their next meeting with you.
    • For example: ‘How are you going to get to contact visits on time?’

Communication strategies

It is important that when communicating with a client with intellectual disability you use communication strategies that promote understanding. These strategies apply to you when you are interviewing clients and taking instructions, and when you are questioning clients in court. Parents with intellectual disability are more likely to understand what is said when you: 

  • Slow down your usual pace and give clients time to absorb what is said.
  • Use language that is as simple and direct as possible – avoid talking down to the parent, or talking to them as one would a child.
  • Use concrete rather than abstract expressions. For example: ‘looking after your child well’ rather than ‘appropriate parenting’.
  • Use short, one or two syllable words wherever possible.
  • Choosing simple language. For example:
Use… Instead of…
About Regarding or concerning
Start Commence
Go Proceed
I think you said/did… I put it to you that you said/did…
It’s true isn’t it Is that not true
  • Avoid using words with more than one meaning.
    • For example: ‘Was this a play for sympathy’?
  • Use active, not passive speech (Subject, verb, object).
    • For example: ‘The car hit you’, not ‘You were hit by the car’.
  • Avoid double negatives.
  • Use simple verb tenses, with the least number of words possible.
    • For example: ‘you say’ not ‘you are saying’.
  • Ask direct questions.
    • For example: ‘Do you want a break?’ not ‘You will let me know, won’t you, if you do want a break?’
  • Discuss one issue at a time.
  • Break information into small, manageable pieces.
  • Avoid using legal jargon.
    • For example: Use ‘law’ not ‘statute’ or ‘legislation’; use ‘what you can tell us about’ not ‘your evidence’.
  • If you do need to use a legal term, explain it in plain English.
    • For example: ‘We can make a section 90 application. A section 90 application means we ask the court to change the decision about where your child lives and when you can see them.’
  • Assist recall with cues.
    • For example: If asking about events that led to a family being evicted you should ask a series of questions to assist in recalling the information, such as ‘Last year you were living at Blackstone. What was your house like at Blackstone? What were the reasons that you left there?’
  • Ask either/or questions instead of yes/no questions.
    • For example: “Did that make you feel happy or sad?”
  • Use visuals which can be helpful for parents in expressing what they want to say.
    • For example: Sometimes using picture cards with a smiley, angry or sad face can help parents to understand questions, and to recognise that they are safe to say what they feel or think.
  • Make it clear that parents are able to say“ I don’t know” to a question. Keep reminding them each session that this is an acceptable thing to do.
  • Keep questions short and simple. Only ask about one point in each question.
  • Include some questions that are open-ended and can’t be answered yes/no or good/bad.
    • For example: ‘What do you do when Eddie has a tantrum?’
  • Ask the parent for examples that illustrate general comments they have made.
    • For example: If a parent says ‘I am going good at counselling’ ask ‘’ What are you talking about in counselling?”

It is important to provide parents with intellectual disability with written information in a form they can understand. This may mean having it read and explained to them. We have developed a set of fact sheets for parents about care and protection. To access them, see Factsheets for parents. **link to Fact sheets for parents**.

Appropriate advice appointments

It is important to organise appointments in ways that accommodate parents. Each parent is different and you should ask your client how they would like to best structure the appointment sessions. Regarding appointments, it is important to consider that:

  • Parents with intellectual disability may cope better with multiple, short appointments.
  • If a longer appointment cannot be avoided, make time for breaks.
  • Parents with intellectual disability may not be able to read court documents, or may need help to understand what they have read.
    • The parent may have a support person who can help with this, especially if they have the documents beforehand.
  • Try to organise appointments for times of the day or week when the parent is best able to concentrate.
    • For example, parents may not concentrate well at the end of the day, when they are hungry, or on the day they have had a contact visit.
  • Try to see parents in a setting where they are comfortable.
    • This will most likely be at their home. It may be very useful for you as their lawyer to understand how your client manages at home.
    • If this is not possible, it may be useful for an advocate or support person to visit the client in their home to help the client prepare their evidence, and in some cases give evidence themselves.

Adapted from:
Law Society Practical Guide for Solicitors
Equality from the Law Bench Book: