Communication is Key to Helping People Thrive in Employment


Communication is perhaps the most important element in a person’s life, not to mention in their workplace. Try to imagine being unable to communicate even your most basic needs, much less the things you need to get your job done. But for some people in supported employment who are non-linguistic, the usual methods of communication can serve as barriers to understanding.

Jennifer White is the director and CEO of Able Opportunities, Inc., a Hansville, Washington corporation dedicated to innovative solutions to the challenges facing supported employees. White has a long career working and playing in Seattle’s Deaf and Deaf Blind communities, and is uniquely qualified to address the challenges facing people who are deaf, hard of hearing, and deaf-blind.

Able Opportunities offers a seminar entitled “Communication: You Don’t Say”, which helps participants to understand Relationship-Based Communication strategies.

The Hazards of Compliance-Based Communication

“Most communications systems used to increase skill are compliance based systems,” White explains. “For instance, to teach articulation, a therapist might say to someone ‘Want a cookie?’ Then you ask them to say ‘cookie,’ and you give them a cookie. Strategies used to teach skills that are taught are meant to springboard you into English, our main language. But what happens when we use those same systems with people who process differently than we do?”

White says that the brain is like a file cabinet. “Most of what we learn, we learn incidentally,” she says. “Information is around us, the brain recognizes patterns, and categorizes it. If everyone’s talking around me and I can’t get the information into my brain because of processing, or modality challenges, it will not ‘get filed’ like yours.” She adds that most of our communications systems target helping someone achieve the same filing system that majority of us use. “My whole focus with the non-linguistic population, honed when working with deaf blind adults and children, is that if you put the right accommodation in place, people can come forward and develop language skills later in life. Our job is to create the accommodation that allows them access to information,” White adds.

Relationship-Based Communication: A Stronger Strategy

Relationship-Based Communication is often missed as a priority in education and rehabilitation strategies. “It is important to come and recoup the essence of communication which is relationship,” White explains. “I want you to understand what I need, I want to get my basic needs met, I want to be clear. To do this, I need to know you are capable of understanding my communication.” She notes that for people in job development, before launching into a work site, they need to be able to determine if the “essential relationship pieces are in place,” so there is an understanding of what the person does or does not want to do, and how the person can grow, as opposed to being dependent on other for communication.

The communication workshop offered by Able Opportunities, Inc. takes place over two days.  The first day focuses on strengthening alternative communication strategies by removing spoken and signed formal languages during playful exercises. Then adding blindfolds to strengthen tactile skill. “We put a blindfold on, and have to get more succinct and clear with our bodies,” White explains. “We use no formal language in the first exercises to increase visual skill, then put on blindfolds to use that visual mapping for tactile interaction. These exercises are made to hone a broader base of effective communication skill and to teach people to pay attention to how they organize themselves.”

White points out that for people who are non-linguistic, after a lifetime of unsuccessful communication attempts and often regular change in staffing, they understandably have little tolerance for new people using new systems. “This makes it vital to bring clear, succinct, and accessible communication attempts to your interactions. Learning to attend to communication without your ears and eyes builds skills to express and receive communication successfully with a broader base of people.

“When you change the foundation of someone’s understanding, it can have a profound impact. We often get follow-up emails and letters from people seeing positive changes in how they deliver service and how people on their caseload are gaining skill.”

Put the Best Techniques into Practice!

White’s innovative methods of communicating are helping take supported employment into bold new directions.  Improving the lives of the people you support is one of the foundations of being an employment specialist, and the DirectCourse/College of Employment Services curriculum can help give employment support professionals the foundations they need to become innovators themselves. We applaud the work of Jennifer White and Able Opportunities, Inc., whose breakthroughs in this field are helping supported employees, job coaches, and employers not only understand one another, but find and maintain satisfying work.

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