Query on facilitating groups with learning difficulties

Martin Gilbraith, ICA:UK – www.ica-uk.org.uk

22 responses received via:





From:                 Martin Gilbraith (ICA:UK) <martin(at)ica-uk.org.uk>

To:                      globaltoptrainers(-at-)ica-topnet.org,



Subject:             facilitating groups with learning difficulties

Send reply to:    martin(-at-)ica-uk.org.uk

Date sent:          Fri, 18 May 2007 15:00:16 +0100

Dear all,

I have been invited by a client to facilitate a Board/staff planning day for a small

voluntary organisation for people with learning difficulties, most of whose Board

members have learning difficulties themselves.

Their Director has been trained in ToP group facilitation methods and participatory

strategic planning, and is keen to have us use that sort of approach, but is concerned

that some of the group may have difficulty clustering and naming groups of ideas, and so

disengage.  We have talked through how we might adapt the process to avoid and/or

cater for that, but I wonder whether anybody has experience of facilitating groups with

people with learning difficulties that point to any other potential issues, or any particular

hints & tips for success?

I'd be grateful for any input, and happy to compile it and feed it back to whoever is


with many thanks,


1------- Forwarded message follows -------

Date sent:          Fri, 18 May 2007 13:15:31 -0400

From:                 Loretta Donovan <loretta.donovan(-at-)GMAIL.COM>

Working with adults who are differently abled requires approaches that are

sensitive to their capabilities as well as their sensitivities and skill

gaps.  My immediate reaction to your client's attraction to a particular

approach (one I'm honestly not familiar with) is to look for the degree to

which it can be adapted and flexibly used, while still maintaining the

integrity of their input and the outcomes required.

For example, some adults with attention deficit disorder find the complexity

of a whole group discussion overwhelming - so can you work with sub-groups

when it is important to listen and give input?  Others with lower cognitive

ability are challenged when lots of reading or writing are required - so can

you use symbols or key words to replace or augment documents?  Since you

mention prioritizing, is it possible to indicate support or importance of

possibile alternatives by using sticky dots of various colors instead?  Are

you able to use group technology and laptops so participants can be polled

and have their choices displayed on a screen?

And keep in mind that the attention span of a fully-abled adult is about 20

minutes.  If you pace the various activities into 15 minute chunks and allow

for frequent short breaks, it will help you as facilitator to know that your

meeting is moving forward and help the participants to maintain their energy

and attention.

Hope this is helpful to your thinking,


2------- Forwarded message follows -------

Date sent:          Fri, 18 May 2007 11:12:01 EDT

From:                 Marion Conway <MarionConway(-at-)AOL.COM>

Martin -

I do have experience working with people with learning difficulties.  But, to

be honest, this phrase covers a wide range of capabilities so it is difficult

to give specific advice.  Here are a few ideas.

Plan for a slower pace.  The discussion may be more round about and sometimes

seem off topic. Don't be too anxious to get to the point as some people may

be processing things at a different rate AND in a different way.  If it is your

style to "sum things up" ask someone in the group to sum things up too.  They

may do it in a way to keep people engaged.  There are multiple ways of

expressing the same ideas and as long as you are inclusive you should be okay.

 I will use my experience with my own daughter who is now 26.  When she was

41/2 she "failed" the test for kindergarten readiness.  An example was the test

for understanding sequencing when she was asked to describe what was

happening in a 4 block cartoon.  The learning specialist who administered the test

said she had told the most creative story she had ever heard but it had nothing

to do with the picture shown.  When my husband asked her to describe what my

daughter had said, he understood perfectly how she had related to it.  I am a

logical, sequential type and wished my daughter would just describe what was

happening in the pictures and not stray so much from the obvious.  My daughter

successfully graduated from college and is an effective tutor to children with

learning disabilities. She brings a different perspective than I do to just

about everything.  It frankly took me a long time to respect my daughter's

perspective.  I have learned to appreciate her creative edge which she definitely

gets from her father - not me.  She has really helped me to think outside the

box - sometimes way outside the box.  It has been a frustrating and rewarding


My daughter wants more than my love and support  - she wants my respect.  If

you are working with learning disabled adults who are on the Board and Staff

you need to respect their ideas and the process they use to get there.  Vary

the learning styles, keep key information posted, reinforce the objectives and

keep an open mind.

The customers (I much prefer the word customer to client) of the nonprofit

are learning disabled people.  My work is completely with nonprofits.  A common

mistake is for staff to think they know better what the customers want.  This

happens when you think of customers as "clients."  Remember during the

planning day that it is all about the learning disabled people.  Be flexible in your

approach and if people don't seem to respond to one type of activity be ready

to try a different one.

If you approach the people with disabilities as though their approach is

"less correct" in their clustering of ideas they will disengage.

Good Luck,


3------- Forwarded message follows -------

Date sent:          Fri, 18 May 2007 13:24:42 -0700

From:                 James Wiegel <jfwiegel(-at-)YAHOO.COM>

Sometimes the folks on this list serve just shine . . .  What knowledge - filled, wise suggestions on this topic.

  I would add, humbly, ask some of the participants what will make it go well . . . I bet they know a lot about how they participate most effectively.

  Jim Wiegel

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Date sent:          Fri, 18 May 2007 14:53:26 -0700

From:                 Hildy Gottlieb <hildy(-at-)HELP4NONPROFITS.COM>

James Wiegel wrote:

>   I would add, humbly, ask some of the participants what will make it go well . . . I bet they know a lot about how they participate most effectively.


I'm glad you mentioned this, Jim.  We were recently working with a group

for whom we were going to be doing a 3-day planning session - very

intense.  My contact in the group told me relatively early in the

process that he has ADD and to please factor that into the facilitation

plans.  My response to him was that he and I would design the process

together, that he tell me what worked for him, what didn't.  I told him

that even during the actual facilitation, if I was losing him, to let me

know and we would make it work, because his input was invaluable in

getting the work done.

The result was nothing I could codify and say, "Here's the answer for

when you are designing around someone with Attention Deficit Disorder"

but I do know he had 3 of the best day of his life - the work was

energizing, he was participating and attentive, and truly it was 3 very

inspired days.  He never had to tell me I was losing him, because I was

watching for signs of that, and compensating on the fly.  I know it

would have been different had he not told me up front of his learning

style, and had we not been able to honestly and openly work together to

find out what might work best for him.

Also, if I might add one word to Marion's wonderful post.  Marion, you

noted that your daughter wants more than your love and support - she

wants your respect.  What I have found when working with folks who have

a sense that the world doesn't see things the way they do is that they

also want to know we believe in them - that we know deep inside that

they absolutely have the potential to be incredible.  Heck, we all want

that!  I have found that when we see others as filled with that

potential, we find ways to bring that out of them, and to help them find

it.  Which comes back to why it is so important to do as Jim suggested -

invite their own wisdom into the process.


5------- Forwarded message follows -------

From:                 "ISOBEL McConnan" <isobel.mcconnan(-at-)ntlworld.com>

Date sent:          Fri, 18 May 2007 15:17:26 +0100

Dear Martin

Afraid I don't have experience of working with people with learning disabilities, so not able to help.  I'm struck though at how important it is to support people to participate in a way that works for them, and so would be very interested to hear others' suggestions, and how you get on.

all the best


6------- Forwarded message follows -------

Date sent:          Sun, 20 May 2007 12:46:00 -0400

From:                 Deb Burnight <dmb1953(-at-)AOL.COM>


I think your suggestions are dead on...and most of what you are describing are actually components that are part of the ToP (Technology of Participation) group facilitation methods that Martin's client was asking for, particularly the options for adaptability, the individual and small group work, and using symbols, rather than words, to capture ideas.  Thank you for your insights.  I love this listserv!

Deb Burnight, CTF

7------- Forwarded message follows -------

Date sent:          Fri, 18 May 2007 10:15:06 -0500

From:                 "Kathy Mackintosh" <KXM(-at-)srs.ks.gov>

I don't know exactly what sort of 'learning difficulties' may be involved so will answer based on work with ToP group facilitation methods, including with group where a member or more were visually impaired and experiences with my daughter who is dyslexic. I prefer having the group direct the facilitator in moving items to group them, and having the facilitator read through the items individually with the group identifying if a new item is like or different from those that have come before. Whether I move the items or members of the group move the items, it is necessary to manage the experience so decisions are not made by just 1-2 people. Be willing to take a break when needed so it doesn't become so tedious - and be willing to keep things moving along.

The value of respecting everyone's input and gaining their participation is worth the additional time it may take to read through items, even when you need to do this repeatedly to accommodate members of the group. As my daughter might remind me if she has to cue me to re-read an item - she isn't better able to read it the second time around. She prefers when we use different colored cards to post items, as that provides an additional clue if she's looking for an item she has heard before. It helps me, too!

Kathy Mackintosh

8------- Forwarded message follows -------

From:                 Ross4Lamps(-at-)aol.com

Date sent:          Fri, 18 May 2007 12:19:52 EDT


Sounds like the same issue as we raised about working with children and young people with literacy issues.  How to use the GFM techniques without being too 'word' focussed.

There's a document obtainable from MENCAP called Am I Making Myself Clear - guidelines for accessible writing for people with learning disabilities.  I'm sure Mencap in London or the regional office in Stockport could send a copy.  Also, I'm sure I've seen something by The Childrens Society about consulting children with learning disbilities but I don't seem to be able to lay my hands on it (or find reference on their website, which is odd).

I did a consultation with young people with learning and cognitive disabilities in Trafford.  We did that mainly using pictures, and using words only where they preferred it (depending also on level of disability).  I can send you a copy of that if it's any use.

Hope this is some help.


9------- Forwarded message follows -------

Date sent:          Fri, 18 May 2007 17:34:47 +0200

From:                 Jan Lelie <janlelie(-at-)wxs.nl>

Dear Martin, readers,

About a year ago a collegea of mine facilitated a session with mentally

retarded individuals. The goal was to learn about issues they had with

their care takers. They were asked to make drawings in stead of using

words. Some of the drawings were just bunches of (coloured) lines,

abstract, some looked like a plate and a knife, one was a kind of

rudimentary mobile phone. My collegae asked them to 'cluster' their

drawings. Then he asked them to name their clusters (they couldn't

write). One or two of them spoke for the group and explained that

sometimes they didn't like the food, they didn't like their care takers

to use the mobile phone when they were engaged with them and some other

issues. The manager said after the meeting that it couldn't be that

these rude drawings were about these issues. In the end, my collega

decided to show the drawings again to some of the group members.

Flawlessly they named the same issues with the same drawings, even the

very abstract ones.

I think that meaning is the result of process ('Gestalt') and resides

not in the words, but in the heads of people who engaged in the

clustering. Language is just an instrument - a kind of specialized tool

- for meaning. Meaning can be found in everything: moving, drawing,

talking, engaging, watching ... .Even people who cannot read or write

can participate in clustering ideas and more often than not are better

in calling the names than the people who wrote the ideas. Because the

have devloped a coping mechanism that doesn't rely on written language.

I always take pictures of the people clustering the ideas, knowing that

when they see themselves clustering again, the meaning comes back to them.

A tip: let them make drawings. A few years ago i did a session on 'time

management' and asked the participants to draw a clock. Some were just

two lines, some were very elaborate: a town hall with a clock, an hour

glass, .... . Then they clustered the clocks. I asked them for the names

of the clusters and loo and behold: the important aspects of time

management AND a deeper meaning on the implications for facilitating

appeared. Even i was amazed by some of the results.

By the way, many a facilitator is dyslectic: you can tell by their hand



Jan Lelie

10------- Forwarded message follows -------

From:                 Marilynadoyle(-at-)aol.com

Date sent:          Sun, 20 May 2007 07:46:29 EDT

Hi Martin,

Sounds brilliant!

I taught children and young people with special needs for many years - and Michelle and I have now led 2 1 week PA courses with people with learning disabilities and have been asked to lead another in the autumn - so we must be doing something right!

happy to chat to you about the day's facilitation - how about lunch this week or next?

..............to read more about our PA courses (with a bit of how to), go to


then to resources and it's the first listed article.

Hope the GFM with Anne goes well,

Best wishes,


11------- Forwarded message follows -------

Date sent:          Mon, 21 May 2007 11:01:12 +0100

From:                 "Lynne Richardson" <LRichardson(-at-)engage-em.org.uk>

Hi Martin

I have worked with people with learning disabilities, a couple of points which you may well have considered.

1.  Retention is often a problem so repeating and regular summaries can help.

2.  People are often fearful of failure; probably they have been seen as failures in settings so a safe ice breaker to build confidence will help.

I am sure your style will work very well, re-phrasing and maybe use of visual images where possible to help develop the concepts of where they want to get to would be good too.


12------- Forwarded message follows -------

Date sent:          Sun, 20 May 2007 15:26:29 -0400

From:                 Jo Nelson <jnelson(-at-)ICA-ASSOCIATES.CA>

To build on several earlier posts, all of which have wisdom:

In the ToP Consensus Workshop Method, I give people permission to hold their

individual ideas in any language or symbols that are helpful to them (or in

their heads during the individual brainstorm), time in small groups to

explain in a comfortable way what they mean before it is held on a card, and

time in the large group to explain their ideas if the group doesn't


The clustering of ideas changes depending on how the group sees patterns.

That's part of its beauty:  it allows the group to build its own patterns of

similarity using the processing styles of the participants.  When I work

with engineers or doctors or computer folks, they often depend on very

rational connections, seeing logical categories.  Other groups see different

connections, sometimes more intuitively.

I personally find it really interesting to see how a group is going to

create a "gestalt" of the meaning of the cluster of individual brainstorm

ideas to create their own larger answers to the focus question. I learn from

their creativity every time.

The naming section can also be adapted to fit different processing styles --

small groups can name a cluster, or the whole group can do it together, the

names can be rational, poetic, or visual images (as long as they answer the

focus question and create the result the group needs).

I think it is best to approach this as "different processing styles" rather

than "learning difficulties", and look for the gifts in it.  We are all

stretched by working together to use our differing gifts in learning and


Yours in curiosity,


13------- Forwarded message follows -------

Date sent:          Mon, 21 May 2007 16:07:49 +0100

From:                 Fran Ryan <fran(-at-)peopleincharge.co.uk>

Hello Martin

Martin Large and I facilitated a 48 hour Search Conference for a Camphill Community in the Forest of Dean in spring 2007. We had about 12 adults with learning disability who participated  for most of it. There were about 35 other people present as well, all the co-workers, some friends and family, several local people with a connection to the community as well as some of the young people who lived at the community.
It seems different in one main respect to what you are doing: the adults with LD were a 'stakeholder' group as such and were also the focus of the services that the community was trying to provide.The system you are working with sounds more integrated, but there may be lessons here.

I can tell you a bit about how we worked it,if that is relevant. However perhaps more to the point is to perhaps put you in touch with Julie Woods who works with a sort of advocacy group called (I think) Friends and Family of Camphill. She worked as part of our team and was instrumental in enabling the group to participate fully and in as equal a way as as possible. She and I spent a number of days in advance of the main conference running workshops and meetings to get the 'Oaklanders' as we called them, the opportunity to contribute and to then decide amongst themselves who should come to the main conference. Julie produced a report detailing the conference which might also be useful in terms of some of the activities we undertook.

So let me know if any of this would be useful. Sadly as far as we know the community was so understaffed that some of the ideas that came out during the conference have not yet been actioned. However I believe that everyone who attended felt that it had been a great success, particularly in terms og involving the Oaklanders. They too felt it had been worth while but I am not sure how that feel now!

So let me know if you'd like me to try Julie for you. And please feel free to give me a ring if talking would be useful.

I had a conversation with Perry Walker of NEF before our conference as he had recently run some conversation cafes with some LD adults. He also had some useful insights.

Fran Ryan

14------- Forwarded message follows -------

Date sent:          Tue, 22 May 2007 10:40:18 +0100

From:                 Edward Andersson <edward(-at-)involve.org.uk>

Dear Martin,

I worked with Perry Walker from nef on People's cafes a while back of

which several were aimed specifically at people with learning difficulties.

We had to adapt the word Cafe model quite a bit to suit the

participants. Key learning included:

    * Short session and lots of breaks

    * Making use of staff who work with the participants on a daily

      basis as support facilitators

    * Using visual and hands on elements in order to build and maintain

      interest in the topic. We found that including pictures to discuss

      improved the sessions massively.

    * The level of learning difficulty varied widely amongst

      participants and thus also the contributions that individuals

      made. It may be that it could be worth grouping people according

      to ability in order to ensure that everyone can have a session

      which caters to their strengths.

I think Perry has more worked up feedback from all the facilitators and

I'd recommend getting in touch with him directly.

Good luck with your project!

Best Wishes,


15------- Forwarded message follows -------

Date sent:          Thu, 24 May 2007 10:16:12 +0100

From:                 Vikki.Hilton(-at-)ed.ac.uk

I have done some work in this area involving people in decision making 

processes and use participatory appraisal approaches and methods.  If 

you are not familiar there is stuff on various web pages or email me 

again. The approach recognises that people have the knowledge and 

experience to reflect, share, appraise, evaluate and work towards 

beinging about change .......... it promotes using visual methods 

which are very engaging and enable a wide range of people to have a 

say.  Various diagrams, pictures - photographs.  I also use this 

approach with large organisational change processes as well as 

non-literate communities i.e.in Papua New Guinea!

Having a graphic facilitator  might also be a brilliant way of 

"capturing" the conversations.  I have worked with one a couple of 

times, Chris Chopyak - who is excellent and currently based in London. 

  If she can't help you I am sure she will be able to point you in the 

right direction.

I was also told about some work being done at the University of 

Stirling using images - I haven't had time to investigate but here are 

a couple of links



I don't know if they will be of any use in this case but might be 

worth investigating.

Hope there is something here that helps


16------- Forwarded message follows -------

Date sent:          Thu, 24 May 2007 11:57:02 +0100

From:                 "Stephen Cox" <scoxsprout(-at-)googlemail.com>

your email was sent on to me by Loarna Alquist.I work with the Cowal Communitty care Forum as cartoonist.We emply a system of icon communication which accompanies  accompanies text using clip art webdings or my graphic skills.

Using already established templates as on the site SYMBOLWORLD

is great but does not always allow people to dicuss or raise more subtle subjects or feelings.

At each meeting I draw the minutes and accompany any presentation with either pre drawn or instant images.Happy to send some if you want.

Stephen Cox

See: http://www.widgit.com/symbols/about_symbols/intro_2_symbols/index.htm

17------- Forwarded message follows -------

Date sent:          Fri, 25 May 2007 11:30:20 +0100

From:                 PETER BRYANT <pbinclusion(-at-)btinternet.com>

Hi Martin,

I also did some PLA style work with a group of people with learning

disabilities in London. We were trying to look at issues around

community safety so that their views could be incorporate into a

community safety strategy.

This we did through:

_Mapping_: A map of the area where they live which had photos of key

places stuck on it ( a kind of a cross between a map and a photo

montage) which we used to facilitate a discussiuon about what they do

during their week, where they go, where they feel safe, where they dont

feel safe (and why) and where do they not go.

_Photos_: some of the group had documented an average day through photos

which were then printed onto A4 and used in discussion groups around the

theme of safety.

_Video interviews_: were also conducted through a video talk box (with a

list of a few questions) and through interviews led by some of the


This allowed us to come up with some key themes that were regularly

mentioned by participants. It was great FUN!

Hope this helps

Peter Bryant

18------- Forwarded message follows -------

From:                 Lornaahl(-at-)aol.com

Date sent:          Fri, 25 May 2007 06:34:23 EDT

I would be interested in the collated responses.  I my experience lots of graphic recording opportunties ie things they can draw on or put stickies on can help, lots of visual materials and very clear spaces to discuss very clear topics are good, and multiple methods. 

google quality action stirling - you might find their site interesting.  They are a learning disability group and input to consultations regularly, I think they have also trained professionals in working with people with learning disabilities.

best Lorna

19------- Forwarded message follows -------

From:                 "Lisa Heft" <lisaheft(-at-)openingspace.net>

Date sent:          Sat, 26 May 2007 06:53:22 -0700

Hello, Martin --

Thank you so much for inviting this conversation.  One of the things I do as

I teach facilitation and as I work with clients is help them understand what

access and invitation mean.  Real invitation, where you make people of all

sorts feel that they have a place in the circle.  Where you plan and design

for this marvelous diversity.  And so on.  So:  I would love to receive a

copy of the full 16 responses.  And I think you articulated your summary of

the key points very well.

Thank you so much,


20------- Forwarded message follows -------

Date sent:          Sat, 26 May 2007 10:14:37 -0400

From:                 [withheld]


I had some thoughts on this, but I wasn't sure about posting them on the listserv (respecting my clients' privacy).  Since others sent their comments directly to you, here are mine too.  Interestingly, as the culture discussion has gone on in the listserv over the past week, I have come to the conclusion that those with disabilitties may have their own culture that we need to learn.

My original thoughts:

I have been working on person centered planning with several folks on the autism spectrum who use facilitated/assisted communication.  I second the comments already made:  get their input on what works for them.  Adjust to that and be prepared to move at their pace, not yours.

I would add the following.

Consider the room:  does a more informal setting (a family or day room) work better for them than sitting around a table in a conference room setting? 

Also consider that your definition of ‘engaged’ may not be theirs.  They may not need to be in their seat with eye contact to be listening and participating.  Their style may include listening from another more comfortable location and returning when they have something to add.

21------- Forwarded message follows -------

From:                 "coach(-at-)hollycrane.com" <coach(-at-)hollycrane.com>

Date sent:          Sun, 27 May 2007 13:40:35 +0100

Hi Martin,

I was involved in a project with New Economics Foundation, facilitating varied groups with learning disabilities - did about 5 or 6 one and a half hour workshops on topics such as crime, etc designed to raise awareness of democracy and give paricipants a voice.  We used the World Cafe approach.

Things that worked well were:

* we included facilitators in the audience, too (a couple per table of 3 to 5 partcipants where possible)

* we included pictures, cartoons etc - participants liked these

* interactive exercises that were accessible for as many people as possible also got a good response - e.g. How many crimes do you thnink happened in this area in 2005?

* topics and issues people could easily relate to - eg on crime, quite a few participants had

experienced this at first hand

* accepting that people would get up and ask questions in the middle of facilitation and working around and with that

* treating it as a learning process and working with participants and facilitators to learn and

adapt each time

Hope that helps and good luck with it all!


Holly Crane, ACC

22------- Forwarded message follows -------

Date sent:          Mon, 28 May 2007 12:57:43 +0200 (CEST)

From:                 Catalina Quiroz Nino <catquini(-at-)yahoo.es>

Hi Martin,

Great to learn all the input received upon your request about the subject.  After talking to Luz Marina at the weekend, here  goes recommendations from both

Ist phase: learn exactly how severe those learning difficulties are.  eg. we had in one session a teenager  with great social abilities, but very limited in grasping or  understanding reading.  She was able to read but mechanically.

2nd phase: stimulation exercises before each phase of the method.  Get them grasp what it is about with different dynamics, eg.

b) brain storming:  ideas expressed in different ways, shapes, working FIRST IN GROUPS, and then INDIVIDUALLY 

c) organising: collages of pictures, linear, non-linear, circular, left to right, right to left  way of placing the ideas, pictures or drawings.  (this last will depend on their hemisphere domain).

Also mental maps for brain storming, which will allow a quick organisation of their own ideas, thru pictures/drawings.

d) categorizing: pointing out words, drawings that are repeated.

(if mental map is used, this will speed up the process in this phase.)  

e) reflextion: about the product, questions could go with LIKE OR DISLIKE, MOST LIKE, MOST DISLIKE, HAD FUN, NOT HAD FUN, WHAT FIRST, WHAT SECOND, WHAT THIRD, WHO (using their OWN PHOTOS, placing them on the columns they identified themselves) 

For early stimulation tape them before hand exercising it and commenting the process with them. One day one step.

IF learning difficulties come together with behavioural problems, then a balanced rewarding process should be in place for each stage.  Videos which place friendship and how this is experienced within struggling situations will help the mood of the group.

Those with Down Syndrome, music and drawing should be the means for creating something.

Hope this might be of help.

All the best,