People with intellectual disability often mask their difficulty with verbal communication to avoid the stigmatisation associated with having a disability. It is very common for people to take on a passive communication style, where they let the more powerful person in the conversation take the lead. In this way, acquiescence (or compliance) is itself a method of masking disability.
There are many possible reasons why acquiescence takes place, including:
- The person might not understand what is said, so they agree with it in an attempt to cover their misunderstanding (masking)
- They find it difficult to say no, particularly to someone perceived to be in authority
- They don’t want to say no, or are afraid to say no, and agree with what is said to avoid getting into trouble
- They find it difficult to understand abstract information (we assume that a lot of our communication each day is straightforward when, in fact, it involves the use of a lot of abstract knowledge).
Masking can also take the form of:
- Rote learning of statements to use when responding to questions or as part of a conversation
- Learned behaviours to get care or help, to fit in, or to get someone to go away
- Rote learning of statements that simply help the person to get by and deal with their everyday experiences, for example: ‘I don’t know whether I’m Arthur or Martha’.
Counselling practitioners need to be alert to inconsistencies between people’s stories and their body language, which might indicate a real difference between what the person is saying and what they would say if they were able or empowered to do so in that moment. Asking clients for advice on how best to communicate with them might give counsellors valuable information and empower clients to communicate their needs. This is likely to reduce compliance.
Working slowly and with repetition, and checking for understanding along the way, are useful techniques to make sure that the client understands the discussion and communicates their genuine wishes, opinions or decisions in return. It is important that counsellors do not over or underestimate what the client understands (or what the counsellor think they understand), or pretend to understand what the person is saying when they aren’t quite sure. Continual checking on the understanding of both parties is important. It is better to gently check than to continue under false pretences.