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No Words is No Barrier

Author: Sam Sly

Tools and approaches for involving children with learning disabilities with little or no verbal communication in inspection

Sam Sly describes approaches and tools to involve children with learning disabilities and little or no verbal communication in inspections. It was produced as part of a MSc action research project.


The key findings were as follows:

  1. Inspectors must be able to introduce themselves to children/adults with communication difficulties, explain simply what they want to do, and assure themselves that children/adults consent to be interviewed. This is an ongoing process throughout the interview and requires some training. (The tools and information were developed during the project.)
  2. Inspectors feel their professionalism is sometimes jeopardised by the lack of training in the area of communicating with people with little or no verbal communication.There are essential areas of training required for working with children/adults with little or no verbal communication, including basic signing, practical communication skills, effective interviewing skills, and equality awareness based on the Social Model of Disability.
  3. If a communication tool is to be used by the Commission, Inspectors must receive training on using it and plenty of practice. 
  4. The timing (time of day, place, whether the child has other things planned, circumstances) of an interview is vital to success.
  5. The questions Inspectors currently ask are often too complex or subjective for some children/adults with communication needs to understand, and their answers can be influenced by whether staff are present, or circumstances beyond the Inspectors control (what they have been told about the Inspection, the mood of the child/adult). The questions Inspector’s ask are often ‘multi-faceted’. In that Inspectors ask one question and actually want more than one answer. E.g. What do you think of the food? When we want to know if it is nice, can they have more? Can they choose? 
  6. Consistency of one Inspector inspecting the same Home for a long period of time is important to be able to build a relationship and trust with the children/adults and get to know their communication needs.
  7. Four of the main topics children are interested and animated about when Inspectors visit, and that Inspectors want to find out about are: food, indoor activities, outdoor activities, and staff support.
  8. Having limited access to symbol and picture lists and software is a problem for Inspectors when trying to communicate with children/adults that are not verbal. 
  9. There is no one communication method that will work with all children/adults, there needs to be access to a range of tools. 
  10. Children recognised symbols logos and photos but tended to identify best with photos (especially the larger ones).
  11. Vocabulary used with children must be age appropriate.
  12. Means of engaging with a child/adult are just as important as gaining confirmable views during inspection. 
  13. Talking Mats™ would work well during thematic Inspections.
  14. Any communication tool the Commission decides to use would require a core national bank of symbols/pictures with access to additional localised and regional symbols/pictures.
  15. Taking a photo of the finished Mat, and the process of clarifying the child’s placement of pictures gives good feedback to the child/adult and acts as evidence for the Inspector
  16. Staff presence during a Talking Mat™ interview can put the child at ease and help interpret communication, but due to the nature of some questions (staff support especially), their presence may prevent true views being given. 
  17. Preparation is key to a successful interview this includes collecting information beforehand on the background of the child/adult, their communication needs, and any needs connected to the topic you are going to talk about.
  18. The child also has to be prepared, through clear information, about what will happen during the interview. 
  19. Evidence collected from the Talking Mat™ can be used effectively in the triangulation process. 
  20. Present methodology does not cater for gaining the views of children (or adults) who do not communicate verbally, but who have the capacity to communicate if provided with a tool. Observation as a tool is not a good enough option for these people. 
  21. Generic Inspecting does not acknowledge the specialist needs of children/adults with little or no verbal communication. There is a need for a more specialist role for some Inspectors who are given the time to train to use communication tools and get in-depth knowledge about a specialist area, and then either cascade the training and knowledge to others, or act as a specialist Inspector as part of wider inspections. 
  22. Using Talking Mats™ on the whole, was an enjoyable way of working for all the Inspectors and children in the project. 
  23. The Talking Mats™ gave some control and power of the process back to the children/adults that used it. 
  24. The present methodology may give Inspectors more time to initiate an approach like Talking Mats™
  25. However much time and effort is put into planning an interview some children will not want to talk!

The publisher is The Centre for Welfare Reform.

No Words is No Barrier © Sam Sly 2006.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.