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S32 Step By Step Guide

Working with clients with Intellectual disability

How to work with the client with intellectual disability

Working with a client who has intellectual disability can be challenging. A few adjustments can make a big difference.


  • Minimise distractions. Try to avoid rushed interviews in busy court house settings
  • Relax, take some extra time and build rapport
  • Keep it simple. Use short sentences, and avoid jargon and abstract concepts. Raise only one topic at a time. Ask only one question at a time
  • Clearly signpost changes in the topic to avoid confusion
  • Allow more time than usual for a response
  • Use the recount technique (that is, ask your client to repeat back in their own words) to check your client has understood the key points


  • Take breaks
    Your client is likely to have a poor concentration span. During interviews, allow for the possibility that they may need short breaks to rejuvenate.
  • Don't rely on written correspondence
    Your client with intellectual disability is likely to have very limited reading skills and difficulty understanding what they can read. Speak with the client wherever possibile. A simple letter using everyday language in dot point form can be useful to reinforce information already given to your client verbally. If possible send important information to another person who can help your client understand and remember.
  • Check that all important information is understood
    Don't assume knowledge. For example, one client breached their bail conditions to report to the police station. They had been going to the police station but no one had explained that they had to go inside, report to an officer and sign.
    Remember, your client may be very literal in their answers to questions. Don't just rely on questions that only require a Yes/No response. Your client may not see the relevance of certain information and leave it out. Ask open questions to get more information.
  • Acknowledge possible discomfort of client with 'disability' label
    A client with intellectual disability may be in the habit of covering up their difficulties. Your client may be uncomfortable wearing the label of intellectual disability. You may need to explain why, in the court proceedings, it is better to be open about their difficulties.
  • Identify a support person
    Contact Criminal Justice Support Network to arrange a support person. If CJSN support is not possible, ask your client if there is someone who could help them at court. It could be a family member, friend, disability service worker who knows your client or an advocate from a local disability advocacy organisation.
    (See Useful Contacts for contacts and referral points for information on disability advocacy organisations.) Having a support person will help both you and your client.
Intellectual disability and mental illnessJS support persons at court

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