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Five Tips for Working With Callers or Chat Visitors Who Have an Intellectual/Developmental Disability


Guest blogger Brenda Patterson is the Executive Director of CONTACT the Crisis Line in Jackson, Mississippi, and serves on the Board of Directors for CONTACT USA.

With all callers/chat visitors we practice active listening and unconditional acceptance. We try to use open ended questions when facilitating conversations and summarize the caller/chat visitor’s plan as we close the conversation. When talking to an individual with an intellectual/developmental disability there can be additional considerations. Let’s look at five:

  • Person first language is a topic all by itself. Whether or not you know at the beginning of a call or chat if the individual has a disability using person first language in any conversation is important. Person first language emphasizes the person, not the disability. By placing the person first, the disability is no longer primary, but one of several aspects of the whole person. Examples include: “person with an intellectual disability,” “person who has autism,” “person who is blind,” rather than “the mentally retarded,” “the autistic,” or “the blind.” Also consider how you refer to their challenge and devices that help them adapt. Using phrases such as “person with an addiction/mental health concern” “one who uses a wheelchair” instead of “mental patient,” “drunk,” “druggie,” “invalid,” or “wheelchair bound” is preferable.

  • Consider that people with intellectual/developmental disabilities often share the following thought processes:

      - Difficulty with fluidity and flexibility of thinking

      - A dislike of ambiguity (black and white thinking)

      - Difficulty prioritizing and breaking down tasks into manageable projects

      - A tendency for poor generalization skills (a person belongs in one and only one
      environment and utilization of a skill in one situation but not others)

  • Recognize that individuals with an intellectual/developmental disability may think logically about concrete events, but have difficulty understanding abstract or hypothetical concepts. The use concrete examples when facilitating problem solving is helpful.

  • It’s important to dispel the myth that people with intellectual/developmental disabilities cannot benefit from therapy. In reality many different types of therapy have been found to be effective in treating people with developmental disabilities. Do not hesitate to mention therapy as an option. Although it generally takes longer for people with developmental challenges to make changes, those changes are stable once made.

  • Because there are higher incidents of abuse in people with any disability, the likelihood of trauma related symptoms occurring are greatly increased, which can be mistakenly attributed to the person’s developmental disability or pre-existing mental illness. Trauma responses generally represent a change from the person’s normal level of functioning.

While there are a number of additional tips to consider when talking to an individual with an intellectual/developmental disability, and there are tips which are specific to individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder these are primary and apply to all individuals with a developmental disability.

With all callers we want to empower them to advocate for themselves and to generate their own solutions, as well as connecting them with services that can further assist them. Whether you are talking to the individual with an intellectual/developmental disability or their family, it’s important to ask if they are receiving Home and Community-Based Services (HCBS) as provided in the state they live in. HCBS provide opportunities for Medicaid beneficiaries to receive services in their own home and community. While waiting lists can be long, the services provided are invaluable and making application early in the individual’s life is important. It can mean they will have the support they need to be independent in adulthood and be happy and content in the life choices they have made.

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