Happy World Down Syndrome Day: What growing up with a brother with Downs taught me about Communication
March 21, 2017
My path into a career in Communications was a meandering one (I started in the education system, focussing in Special Ed), but my need to look at outside-the-box ways of receiving and delivering messages and meaning started at a young age. When I was five years old, my baby brother, Jonathan, was born with Down Syndrome and it radically impacted my life trajectory in almost every arena: relationships, social life, hobbies, chosen neighbourhood and career. In fact, advocating for Jonny was my first introduction into the world of PR. I even married someone who also has a brother with Downs! Growing up with a sibling with disabilities taught me several foundational things about communication that I think are worth sharing with other Communications practitioners and the general public:
You know what they say about assumptions
Having an alternative communication style doesn’t necessary mean that a person is different from their peers intellectually. I can remember speaking with a brilliant Vancouver-based poet who happens to be non-verbal and, instead, writes by pointing to letters on an alphabet board. She explained that people rarely speak with her directly and, when they do, they change the pitch and volume of their voice and use simplified sentences. How annoying is that! If in doubt, it’s best to just ask people directly how they like to communicate. If need be, a support worker or family member may step in to help you make a connection.
We all share many of the same needs, and this plays out in communications
We still sometimes use the term “special needs” when referring to people with developmental disabilities. However, no matter where people are at in terms of their physical, behavioural or cognitive levels, the vast majority of our needs are the same (something pointed out in this video). We all need to learn, to enjoy the company of others, to share. We all feel embarrassment, loneliness and boredom. Most of us have a sense of romance, even if it might not look the same for everyone. When we communicate with people from a place of recognizing the needs you have in common rather than their “special” needs, everyone wins.
Effective communication is not an after-the-fact consideration – it’s fundamental
Accessibility is one of my foremost concerns when I notice businesses and organizations that consider Communications an “extra” or an “add-on” for when there’s more room in the budget. Nothing says bad business to me more than a company that hasn’t taken the time to think about how their service or product might impact a diverse cross-section of people, and this is a huge issue when it comes to D-I-Y Communications. When organizations fail to do due diligence with accessible communications, it sends a message – to individuals with disabilities, to their family members, to their friends, to their support community.
Alternative communications and accessible communications don’t usually require drastic changes
Thinking outside the box on accessible communications is great. However, if we’re thinking too far outside the box, chances are that the communications idea isn’t realistic or sustainable in a fast-paced world where people don’t even know where to start (if they’re thinking about it at all). Additionally, most people prefer communicating with people in a way that allows them to blend in with their peers. Demonstrating competence on accessibility can require as little as sizing up on fonts, including intuitive pictures or changing your venue to something that can be used by people who use mobility aids.
For initiatives that require a bit more expertise, like how to include braille on a document or in an event, how to include captions on a video or how to facilitate public engagement with non-verbal populations, don’t be afraid to send an e-mail our way. If we don’t have an answer for your question, we’ll connect you to someone who does.