Working together with everyone involved is critical when employing someone with an intellectual disability.

I’ve been reflecting on employing Madi and how & why it has been so fabulously successful.

One thing that has definitely contributed is the level of communication and collaboration with all the key players.

However, us humans tend to communicate to others in a way that we are most comfortable. Our “way” might not be the most effective. We need to work out which way of communicating (especially to those with disabilities) is going to work best.

Who are the key players?

In our case:

  • Madi (employee)
  • Madi’s family
  • Staff
  • Madi’s support worker
  • The Starfish community


Because Madi can read, we often communicate via text, facebook or email. She tends to find talking on the telephone or during face to face meetings more stressful. Having the opportunity to read things, on her own, allows Madi the time to process and then respond.

From invites to work functions to heads-up on things happening at work, it tends to happen via text or messenger.

Sometimes, though, important conversations need to happen in person. But, they can be followed up with a summary in writing (text or email).

We recently had our NDIS Audit. During this process we updated our Job Descriptions. Because of the significant nature of the document, Madi had her support worker present. I then emailed Madi the Job Description so she could read through it at her leisure. She could also show her family.

Communicating in writing is the way to go. It plays to Madi’s strengths. It saves so much time and reduces misunderstandings. It probably saves mistakes and money too. For others, different methods of communication might be more effective.

Tip 1 – Find a mode of communication that works well and plays to the employees strengths.

One of the many text messages sent to Madi. This one is about an upcoming Starfish social night outside of work hours.

Madison’s family

Once Madi’s parents learned she had contacted us and asked for work experience, they were on the phone to us like lightning!

Janelle (Madison’s mother) and I met, initially without Madi present. Some relevant medical information was shared, concerns were aired, possible problems were identified and solutions found. We found ourselves on the same page. Continued communication and working collaboratively has kept us on the same page.

I’ll let Janelle tell you about their experience in her own words (in a later blog).

My husband, Richard, and I attended Madi’s 21st Birthday Party along with other special events for Madi outside of work. This has given us plenty of opportunity to talk informally with Madi’s family.

But mostly we communicate over the phone or via text message. I am conscious of the fact that Madison is 21years old, and an adult. The goal is for her to be as independent as possible. Sometimes I need to make decisions about whether communicating with Madi’s family needs to happen or if it is breaching her independence. In my head, I call it the “independence sniff test”. For example, when I asked Julie to attend as a support for Madi when we went over the updated Job Description, I sent Janelle a text message to keep her in the loop. But, when I invited Madi (via text message) to come to a team building event I did not inform Janelle. It is not clean cut. It would be different with each individual and their circumstances. I’d recommend discussing “where the line is” with your employee and their family to guide your “nose”.

Tip 2 – Use the “Independence Sniff test” when communicating with family. But discuss where the “line” is.

Madi and her family. At Madi’s 21st.


I’ve found it really important that staff are involved in the whole process of employing someone with an intellectual disability. It is an opportunity for the staff to grow and learn. I consider it part of their training. If they are kept informed, consulted and given opportunities to contribute to the process they are far more likely to be on board. This will pay off for everyone involved.

At Starfish the staff are involved in formal meetings (weekly) and regular informal discussions as needed. During these times, we often touch base with how Madi is going. I tend to talk about what the short and longer term goals are for Madi. Then we work collaboratively on the best ways to make that happen. The staff (and myself) use a diary to record the steps as Madi achieves them. The staff also put together the list of jobs for Madi to do each day.

Tip 3 – Involving the staff recruits them into inclusive practices.

Madison’s Support Worker – Julie

Julie and myself going over the Starfish Policies & Procedures.

Julie is the Business Development Officer for Workskills, which is an arm of The Disability Trust. They are the supported employment body overseeing Madison’s move from work experience to permanent employment (and a possible traineeship in the future).

I keep Julie up to date with Madi’s hours, her performance and our goals (short and long term). Julie visits Starfish and we talk in person. We also chat over the phone and via text. Formal information tends to be transferred via email.

It was fantastic being able to have an independent 3rd party present for Madi’s Job Description meeting, as her support person.

I need to make decisions about when to communicate and collaborate with Workskills. In my head, I call it the “Vulnerability sniff test”. If I think a situation could potentially have Madi in a vulnerable position then I call upon Julie. Having the option to do so, means the family do not have to be involved. This helps Madi be as independent as possible. It allows Madi’s family to be her family and someone else step into the role of work place advocate.

Tip 4 – Use the “Vulnerability sniff test” when communicating with Support Workers.

The Starfish Community

Employing someone with an intellectual disability is an opportunity to raise awareness, inform and promote inclusion in our greater community. I also hope it might encourage other potential employers to consider offering work experience of employment to someone with disabilities.

There are a few ways we communicate with the wider Starfish community.

  • Chamber of Commerce. I belong to the Kiama and District Chamber of Commerce, and gave a brief presentation outlining our positive experience employing Madi.
  • Local Council. I have had a couple of conversations in person and via email with the Business Development Officer for the Kiama Municipal Council. At the moment this has been to keep them in the loop of what we are doing at Starfish. But with a view to possibly working together in the future to promote inclusive employment.
  • Community Groups. I belong to the Gerringong Association community group, and am a member of the executive. This gives me another platform (when appropriate) to share what we are doing at Starfish and advocate for accessibility and inclusion.
  • Community Conferences. I spoke at The Disability Trust 2 day conference. This was a valuable platform to talk about employing someone with intellectual disabilities, from an employer’s perspective.
  • Blog and videos. Writing blogs and creating video content is a great way to communicate with the broader starfish community: locally, nationally and globally.
  • Social Media. This is arguably our most effective way of reaching our wider Starfish community. We make sure we post regular updates and that Madi is well represented.
  • In store. Customers coming into our store and enjoying the opportunity to see Madi at work and be served by her, is the best way to educate and communicate on a personal level.

There are many ways to communicate with your business’ greater community. These suit us. It is an opportunity to enlighten, educate and inspire our community to provide inclusive employment. It would be a pity not to share the joy. It also promotes our business positively.

Tip 5 – Seize opportunities to reach your greater community promoting inclusive employment. Promote your business at the same time.

Main Take Home

The main take home is consider “how” best to communicate, especially with the employee with disabilities. For us it is in writing (to Madi).

It is so worth it.

Want to learn more about employing someone with intellectual disabilities, the things we’ve found to be crucial (and at times surprising) to making “it” work so well for us? We’ve put together a series of posts so everyone who needs this information can easily access it.

  • The Accidental Employer: the back story of how we came to employ someone with an intellectual disability
  • A perfect match: getting the right fit
  • Take the pressure down: for ALL the key players
  • Eye on the road but hand on the wheel: keeping expectations and goals fluid
  • Longing to Belong: truly inclusive practice at work
  • Teach then train: best way to push beyond the present
  • Routines = Success: for independence, confidence and learning new skills
  • Enjoy support: working with a Supported Employment Agency
  • A moment with Emily: a sister’s perspective
  • A moment with Janelle: a family’s experience of the process
  • A moment with Julie: observations from The Disability Trust Business Development Officer