Learning to listen

One of the reasons this blog is called “Real Social Skills” is that the skills needed in order to listen to people with disabilities are not seen as “social skills”. 

Disabled people who communicate in unusual ways are usually seen as having a social skills problem. People who don’t understand what disabled people are saying are *not* usually seen as having a social skills problem. The disabled person is almost always blamed. It doesn’t have to be like this; it’s a problem with our culture; this is something that we can change.

Listening to other people (disabled or not) involves a lot of skills. No one is born knowing how to understand what others are communicating — we all have to learn how to listen. And we’re never done — there is always more to learn about listening and understanding other people. We should all have an expectation that learning skills for listening to people who communicate atypically is part of that. No one is too young or too old to learn to listen. 

For instance, all of these things are listening skills:

  • Understanding what someone who has a heavy CP accent is saying
  • Maintaining a conversational rhythm with someone who takes longer than most people to process or express themself
  • Having a conversation with someone who doesn’t make eye contact, and figuring out alternative ways to tell when they are and aren’t paying attention
  • Noticing when repetition is communication 
  • Understanding the indirect communication of people who can only use the limited core vocabulary words available on their communication devices
  • Giving someone who has been through intense compliance training the space they need to express their own thoughts rather than yours
  • Paying attention to what someone who speaks oddly is saying rather than writing it off as rude or cute 
  • Listening to someone who has both communicative and non-communicative speech, and figuring out which words are and aren’t intended as communication
  • Listening to someone who has both voluntary and involuntary motion, and figuring out which gestures are and aren’t communication
  • And so on.

No one is born with fully-developed listening skills. Learning to listen effectively is a lifelong process. Learning to listen to people with communication disabilities needs to be part of that.