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Supporting Effective Communication

The NDIS Commission have released a new free eLearning module and Leighton explains why he's such a big fan of it.

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Updated 15 Apr 20247 Dec 2021

The NDIS Quality and Safeguarding (Q&S) Commission recently released an eLearning module for people working in the sector: Supporting Effective Communication. Because there’s so much happening with the NDIS right now, you may have missed this release. I’m writing to say, “Don’t! Don’t miss it!” This is a very good module and well worth your time.

A couple of shoutouts

Before I briefly unpack it for you, I want to publicly praise the Commission for this one. It’s an engaging module that fits squarely within the “developmental” domain of the Q&S Framework. I’ve previously criticised the Commission for underinvesting in the developmental and preventative domains of their mission, so I’m encouraged to see tangible evidence that the developmental domain has not been forgotten. The module is well structured and produced, making it both engaging and easy to follow. And a shoutout to Chris Bunton, who is excellent as the lead narrator.

Who is this about? And who is the module for?

Let’s be clear at the start: this module is about supporting people who have complex communication access or support needs. This is a large group of people with disability who don’t use speech or words to communicate. They are frequently forgotten or ignored and often labelled as “nonverbal” (although I prefer the phrase “uniquely verbal” – thank you, Jaquie Mills). In the module, you meet people who use a variety of informal and formal communication systems and sometimes rely on partners who support or interpret their communication.

Some people rely almost exclusively on informal communication strategies and methods – things like gestures, vocalisations, eye movements, and behaviours. It becomes obvious that knowing such people really well is essential because they rely so heavily on these communication strategies. And that has implications across multiple levels of provider organisations and the whole disability support system. For example, having casualised or contracted support workers on rotation is going to make it more difficult to support effective communication. These and other systemic implications mean this is a module that managers, board members, NDIS partner staff, and NDIA staff should also complete.

Why is this module important?

There are a few key reasons this module is so important:

Communication is a human right

Article 21 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities spells this out by declaring that people with disability should be able to exercise their “right to freedom of expression and opinion, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas on an equal basis with others and through all forms of communication of their choice”. While that gives us a pretty sound starting point to why this is an important module, there are also other reasons.

The NDIS is founded on the right and the opportunity of all people with disability to make decisions about things that affect them. Sections 4 and 5 of the NDIS Act (Principles) are explicit about the right of people to exercise choice and control in their lives and over their supports and services. Exercising that choice and control is the core paradigm shift that the NDIS seeks to usher in. This means it is no longer okay for other people to make decisions for people with disability “in their best interests”. Nor is it okay for people with complex communication access needs to not have their choices and decisions heard, respected, and acted on. It is self-evident that if people with complex communication access needs don’t have the support they need to communicate effectively, they are not going to be very successful when it comes to making and implementing their own decisions.

Identity formation

For most of us, making choices that reflect our will and preferences is something we do hundreds or even thousands of times every day. Some of these are good or wise choices, while others are not so good. But they are our decisions, not someone else’s. And we are allowed to make poor choices and decisions as much as good ones. Often, we rely on communicating our decisions to other people so they can be implemented. For example, I might be fussy about making sure the barista gets my coffee order right or that my hair is cut to my satisfaction.

In isolation, many of these choices or decisions may seem inconsequential, but in combination, they are essential ingredients that contribute to our creation of a sense of identity that we can project to the world. Being unable or unwilling to support people to communicate effectively can limit their ability to develop a strong sense of identity and influences how other people will perceive and may respond to them.

Safeguarding, behaviours of concern, and communication

Behaviours of concern are a big deal for the Commission, providers, and many people and families – as they should be. This is a complex area, and we rightly have experts to assist with responding to behaviours of concern in ways that safeguard individuals, workers, and other people. While I am not one of those experts, I often reflect on the relationship between communication and behaviours of concern.

The module introduces us to a young man who uses behaviour to communicate feelings that he is unable to name or contain. While I think that the way that example plays out is optimistic rather than realistic, the issue it raises is very real: some people use behaviour as a primary way of communicating. Viewing behaviour largely as problematic rather than communicative can exacerbate feelings of anger, frustration, and disempowerment. This can cause us to miss numerous opportunities to support people to communicate more effectively about a whole range of things.

I am not suggesting that all behaviours of concern are primarily about communication. Nor am I suggesting that they don’t need to be addressed through things like behaviour support plans. I am simply highlighting that because behaviour can be an important and expressive form of communication for all of us, this should be in view when it comes to the support we provide to people with disability.

Supported decision-making

The NDIA recently conducted a public consultation about support for decision-making. This has been a long time coming and reflects the Independent Advisory Council’s 2019 advice about its importance for a significant cohort of NDIS participants. We know that a formal Support for Decision Making Policy is likely to come our way in 2022. And we know that supporting effective communication is a base-level skill to support someone with complex communication access needs to make and implement decisions.

What to do?

This module is an introduction to this incredibly important topic. On its own, it won’t enable you to systematically ensure that the people you support are able to make their own decisions and develop their decision-making skills and capability. But it’s an important first step on the journey to learn how to effectively support another person’s communication and decision-making. There are other resources that can take you further down the path after that.

So, while the module is targeted to frontline support workers, I encourage managers, NDIS staff, public policy makers, NDIS partner staff, parents, siblings, and other relatives to complete the module. If you know what it takes to support and enable effective communication, you will be much better equipped to create the right policies and put the right supports in place to enable frontline staff and others to do this as well.

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