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A man using a wheelchair faces a computer screen while two men and two women look at him and the screen.

Workshop teaches strategies to bridge communication gaps

As part of a workshop, participants were introduced to communication tools used by people with speech, language or communication disabilities. Credit: RCMP


A workshop organized in Manitoba is helping RCMP officers and employees better serve those living with speech, language or communication disabilities.

The Communication Matters workshop was launched as a pilot project last summer and covered topics such as accessibility legislation, strategies for communicating with people who have speech, language or communication disabilities, and how to access and use resources such as communication intermediaries and support equipment.

"When we looked at the statistics, there was a high percentage of these individuals who were victims of crimes. Many of the cases never went to court or the victim never got their story out in part because there was a communication gap," says RCMP S/Sgt. George Whelan, who works in career development and resource services with the RCMP in Manitoba.

As part of the workshop, Brett Adam shared his experiences living with a speech disability. His advice to participants was "not to automatically dismiss a person because of the way they are speaking. It's important to know that people with speech difficulties can be an asset to an investigation if an officer uses proper communication techniques."

Bridging the gap

Stacey McRuer is the Communication Devices Program co-ordinator at Deer Lodge Centre, a rehabilitation facility supporting adults with complex needs in Winnipeg. Along with Speech Language Pathologist Aynsley Allen and Occupational Therapist Amy McDougall, McRuer helped organize and deliver the workshop. They say using simple strategies can improve communication for anyone.

"It benefits anyone that you're talking to. These strategies are universal," says McRuer. "Even if someone is verbal, these strategies will increase your ability to get good information."

The seminar included tips such as slowing down and being patient, removing distractions, paying attention to all forms of communication, and being honest if you're having a hard time understanding someone.

"It's important to know that many, if not all, people have the ability to communicate, it's just at what level and with what support," says McRuer.

The speakers offered other tips for communicating with someone who has speech, language or communication disabilities:

  • Ask the person how they best communicate. Some people may prefer to write, draw, or use a thumbs-up or thumbs-down for yes or no
  • Ask if it would be helpful to include a support person such as a paid communication assistant, a friend or relative
  • Ask one question at a time and provide one direction at a time

Lived experiences

Brett Adam, who told his story at the workshop, was a police officer with the Winnipeg Police Service when, in 2007, he experienced blurry vision while testifying in court and went home sick thinking it was a migraine headache.

"Within 24 hours I was in a coma and completely paralyzed. I had contracted a neurological disease called Guillain-Barré Syndrome," says Adam.

For more than a decade, he's worked with Deer Lodge Centre's Communication Devices Program finding ways to augment his communication through a computer. In the seminar, he discussed how he adapted to life with a disability, demonstrated how he uses computers and other technologies to communicate, and how it feels when he's overlooked because of his disability.

"I was able to offer the presenters some insights on what police officers might require when dealing with people with different speech impairments. During the seminar, I was also able to show them how I use my communication devices so that they might be aware there are different ways to communicate with people who have impairments," says Adam.

He says that by sharing his story, he hopes to help officers more easily work with people who experience a communication disability.

Whelan says in a survey completed by attendees after the workshop, many considered learning about the lived experiences a highlight of the seminar. "It allows the attendees to really understand how someone feels when they're overlooked and how they can build that rapport," says Whelan.

"You get to experience it through their eyes," says Cst. Chris Joven, a cultural diversity officer with the Manitoba RCMP who attended the seminar. "I've been to many courses where it's PowerPoint to PowerPoint, but hearing it first-hand from somebody, and seeing the technology that they use to communicate, it's a lot better learning that way."

Insp. Adele McNaught says attending the workshop was eye-opening and changed the way she thinks about communicating. "Some things can easily be misinterpreted as being aggressive or assertive, when actually it's something a person has no control over," says McNaught. "Sometimes we need to slow down and be patient, and give people time to communicate the best way they can."

Following the success of the first seminar, work is underway to offer the workshop again in Manitoba and develop something similar for RCMP officers across the country.

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