I have recently spent some time working with a further education college for people with moderate to severe learning disabilities. During this time I became very aware of total communication, wherein all forms of communication no matter how small were listened to. This in my mind is brilliant, as even the tiniest of eye gazes could be the start of a greater channel for communicating wants, needs and desires. Then I watched total communication in practice a little bit closer. I found that whilst a student was being compliant and following what the support staff wanted then total communication worked, however ‘No’ did not seem to be a valid answer. This got me thinking about how important it is to respect and understand the need for the word ‘no’.

 ‘No’ is used in everyday situations all the time, from simple aspects such as would you like a drink to much more complex scenarios, yet here I was watching ‘no’ repeatedly being ignored. I remember watching one young man with severe learning disabilities and autism whose method of saying ‘no’ was to take hold of you by the front of your shirt and move you out of his personal space. I watched him do this twice with a member of support staff, who did the most sensible thing and gave him some space. The support staff was told by the lecturer running the session to keep attempting to continue the physical interaction with this young man regardless of his clear indication of ‘no’. The young man then became highly agitated and was eventually removed from the class due to this. This story is not unique and if we do not encourage people with learning disabilities to say ‘no’ and respect this ‘no’ then can we be surprised if behaviour that is challenging ensues. In ignoring someone’s indication of ‘no’ is removing their communication channels and ignoring their wishes, needs and requirements all of which services push so hard to encourage.

 The word ‘no’ is important; it gives a freedom of expression. There are many areas where ‘no’ is quite possibly the most important word for a person with learning disabilities, such as ‘no’ my hoist is uncomfortable or ‘no’ I don’t want to work with this person today. It is for these reasons that ‘no’ is a vitally important word to respect and to teach. If the young man I mentioned earlier was encouraged to express ‘no’, starting with his own communication of physically removing the person from the area and slowly developing this is to a signed movement, then rather creating behaviour that challenges we would have given this young a communication outlet. It is easy to imagine the frustration, anger and confusion that builds up when our communication is not understood, think how you would feel if you were visiting a dentist in China and you could not make yourself understood. Now imagine this was every day of your life and every time you said ‘no’ you were ignored. We as professionals in the field often act surprised when someone displays behaviour that challenges but from my own experience this behaviour is often rooted in a lack of respect for people’s communications and in particular the word ‘no’. 

 ‘No’ is a word that we use every day without thinking about it, but it is also one of our most important words. For people with moderate to severe learning disabilities ‘no’ is even more important still. In their life there will be times where others will have to assist them with some of the most intimate aspects of their lives. In listening and supporting people when they say ‘no’ we are allowing them a freedom and a choice in a life that could so easily become regimented and like a processing line. Total communication should be just that, whether the person in the position of care agrees with what the person with learning disabilities is saying they should listen and respect what is said and that includes ‘no’.

Eleanor Dewar

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