Let’s set the scene. A seventeen-year-old wheelchair user goes on trial. Arriving at court, they are greeted with a set of steps. No-one is available to offer help. The young person crawls up to the entrance, dragging their wheelchair behind them. Once inside, they find the trial has started in their absence. They aren’t sure what is happening and can’t fit into the space beside their counsel, so can’t give instructions or seek clarification. They want to give evidence, but are told they need to find a way to get into the witness box. No allowances will be made.
Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Such treatment of a young disabled person on trial would rightly be met with widespread indignation, if not outrage. Yet every day thousands of young people with communication disabilities are denied full participation in the criminal justice system. Without adequate communication skills they can’t participate in or understand legal proceedings, engage fully with rehabilitation or take up educational opportunities. With around 60% of Young Offenders experiencing difficulties with expression, listening or social communication this isn’t an isolated issue. It is an epidemic, albeit a hidden one. Everyone working with vulnerable or high-risk young people has a part to play in addressing communication needs.
So, where do we start? Here’s five things you can do today.
Embrace silence. Most of us feel the need to keep a conversation going, and to fill in those so-called “awkward silences”. But many young people need a few extra moments to process what they hear, and to form the words they want to say. Keeping in mind that “silence is golden” could open the door to a better quality of interaction.
Take Stock. How do you and your colleagues communicate new information with young people? Do you use leaflets, posters, websites or social media? Take some time to check that the language is clear, the sentences are simple and there is no unnecessary information. A few pictures to support key ideas will help less confident readers and may encourage non-readers to ask more information.
Keep talking about talking. Many young people don’t know that they find communication more difficult than others do. Many professionals don’t realise just how common these difficulties are. You can help make it OK to ask for support, and help others to appreciate the scale of the problem.
Seek help. If you feel a young person is struggling with communication, consider consulting a Speech and Language Therapist. If you don’t have one in your organisation or team, contact the nearest hospital for advice on accessing services. If you want to make sure you are using the best approaches for engaging young people, undertake communication training, or seek advice from a colleague who has.
Use everyday language. It is easy to slip into “professional-speak”, without realising that many young people don’t understand the terms, don’t have the confidence to seek clarification and don’t have the language skills to derive meaning from context. Challenge yourself, and your colleagues, to communicate ideas as simply as possible.