Counselling professionals are in a position of power when they work with people with intellectual disability. Being aware of this power imbalance is crucial. In many cases, compliance, miscommunication and challenging behaviour can be avoided or reduced by a conscious and ongoing effort by the practitioner to decrease the power differential between themselves and their clients.
Practical, simple and concrete strategies that can help to reduce power imbalance include:
- The counselling space: The counselling space itself needs to be welcoming, nonthreatening and well equipped for flexible and creative practice. For example, it is helpful to have shelves on which figurines, toys, shapes and so on can be placed. Art materials should also be readily accessible to both the counsellor and the client
- Seating: Ask the client where they would like to sit. Arrange the environment so that it is welcoming and offers a range of places to sit that are ‘power-neutral’
- Environment: If appropriate, move the practice into different environments. For example, it may be possible to meet in a coffee shop, go for a walk, or sit in the park amongst the trees. Practitioners with experience in this field commonly report the positive gains made when counselling takes place outside of the clinical office environment
- Language: Avoid using jargon – unnecessary use of professional jargon will only remind the client that they are unequal in the therapeutic relationship
- Language: Be aware of the different labels of intellectual disability, and use them as little as possible. Most people with intellectual disability do not identify with diagnostic labels or even with having a disability, due to the powerful stigmatisation associated with disability. Often, we use labels for different ‘client groups’ to meet organisational needs, with little consideration of their effects on the individuals concerned. Keep these labels for discussions with colleagues and staff, rather than for discussions with clients
- Communication: Take responsibility for communication and make sure that clients know that it is OK to tell you if they don’t know or understand something
- Blame: Never blame a client for not understanding you. It is the counsellor’s responsibility to ensure understanding, and a reflection of their skill as a therapist.
A ‘strengths-based’ approach to counselling practice with people with intellectual disability is highly appropriate and powerful in avoiding further disempowerment of this client group (Saleebey, 2009). In strengths-based counselling practice, clients are valued as the experts in their own lives, and are supported to identify and build upon their existing skills, abilities and resources.