Communicating with people who have a communication impairment

Communication and Health Literacy

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A person's ability to communicate can be effected by many conditions, including:

  • stroke and other neurological conditions
  • brain injury
  • cancers of the head and neck
  • congenital disorders.

Depending on the cause, the person may have difficulty:

  • understanding what others say
  • reading
  • writing
  • finding the right words
  • speaking clearly.

Different communication impairments present very differently. Patience and understanding is the key. Be flexible; communicate according to the person's needs and cues.

When you are the talker

  • Speak at a normal volume.
  • Don't assume you have to speak slowly or use simple language.
  • Check the person has understood each point before continuing, you may need to give one piece of information at a time.

When you are the listener

  • Patience is the key to communicating with someone who has communication impairment. Do not hurry them.
  • Always let the person finish their sentence. It is rude and discouraging to cut someone off or finish a sentence for them.
  • Let the person know if you don't understand them. Politely ask them to repeat what they said.
  • Don't offer instructions. For example, don't ask the person to slow down or take a deep breath.
  • If the person has significant difficultly communicating with you, ask questions they can answer with a gesture or short answer. Offer the use of pen and paper but be aware many people whose speech is severely impaired also have difficulty handwriting.
  • Some people with speech impairments use devices to help them communicate. Others opt to use Auslan sign language and the National Relay Service. See Communicating with people who are deaf.

Where to go for help

If you and your colleagues often need to talk with people with communication impairments, consider meeting with a speech pathologist to learn more about various strategies you can use.

Updated December 2018