As the theme for this year’s International Day of People with Disabilities goes, not all disabilities are visible. We wanted to mark Thursday 3rd December this year by exploring what those without disabilities can do to facilitate a more empowering conversation for those who have communication difficulties. How can we ensure we’re communicating in the most effective way?
Joanne Reece is a Customer Service Adviser in Southend and has been with us for just over 18 months. Having previously worked in London as an IT technician and then in a service delivery supervisor role at an IT help desk, Joanne joined NatWest seeking a better work-life balance. She has a daughter, Sophia, and a son, Joseph, who has Down’s syndrome. I spoke to Joanne about her experience of communicating with her son, who has communication difficulties, and about an important initiative she’s working on within the bank.
‘Makaton can be used to communicate with anyone that has learning or communication difficulties. This could be a relative who has had a stroke, a friend with throat cancer or children or adults with autism or Down’s syndrome, like Joseph, to name a few.’
‘I started learning Makaton 14 months ago as I was looking for a more effective way to communicate with Joseph. His health visitor suggested Makaton, and coincidently Sophia went to a Makaton-friendly nursery, so she’d also learnt some Makaton separately. It’s fantastic that young children are being taught it to help with general speech development, and so they can also communicate effectively with other children who need to use it too.’
Makaton is a globally recognised language programme that uses signs and symbols together with speech. Because it’s used worldwide it doesn’t discriminate, and everyone has access to, or the resources to learn and use the same programme. Sign language, such as BSL, is centred solely on those in the deaf or hard of hearing community. Whereas, while Makaton can help those who have hearing difficulties, its primary focus is on those with communication or learning difficulties. It isn’t age specific, and is used by children and adults.
Joanne continued, ‘Makaton can be used to communicate with anyone who has learning or communication difficulties. This could be a relative who’s had a stroke, a friend with throat cancer, or children or adults with autism or Down’s syndrome, like Joseph. For my son, it allows him to tell us his needs such as when he’s hungry and wants a snack, and it allows me to tell him my needs like when I want him to stop shouting at me. It doesn’t help if I sign ‘’no shouting’’ whilst loudly stating myself ‘’no shouting Joseph’’. That gives mixed messages so it’s important to verbalise things in the correct tone too.
‘The passion for me to learn and teach others is still there, and it’s growing bigger day to day.’
‘My family also wanted to learn so they could communicate better with Joseph too. Makaton has enabled us to all be on the same page in our approach. It’s given us that consistency that he needs.
‘I’ve completed levels one to three of the Parents & Carers course, and my final level is the tutor level. I completed level 3 during lockdown via Zoom, and I was thankful that I could continue to study during that period, and it was great to see how the group adapted with that type of learning in a virtual setting’.
Joanne has worked in collaboration with Enable, our disability network, during 2020 to run Makaton sessions across the bank, hosting roughly two sessions a month.
‘The passion for me to learn and teach others is still there, and it’s growing bigger day to day. I’ll keep going until I’m a qualified Makaton tutor. I can see the massive impact it could have on our customers and our loved ones, and I’d really like our customers here to benefit.
‘Next year, I’ll continue working with Danielle McIntyre, Deputy Global co-chair of Enable, and continue to build and champion what Makaton can offer and hopefully train more of our branch network. 2020 has been a huge success for us within Coutts as we’ve now met the criteria to achieve Makaton Friendly Status in our office on The Strand in London. Next we’re looking at focusing on NatWest Group.
‘We’d like Makaton to be rolled out and employees trained in the most relevant areas within the bank. This will be invaluable to not only those in customer facing roles and, in our branches, but will also help colleagues who have communication difficulties as well.’
Connecting with purpose
To be able to communicate is a fundamental right, and supporting our customers in being able to do this could be life changing for them, helping them regain their independence and control over their financial affairs.
‘The Makaton charity has a Makaton Friendly Status which recognises organisations that strive to make their services accessible to people who use Makaton. Imagine how empowering it would be when someone with communication difficulties walks into one of our buildings or branches and sees the Makaton Friendly logo. Instantly they’d know that our colleagues have the skills and means to communicate with them on the same level as any other customer, and that they can obtain the services they need with confidence and dignity.’
We hope that Joanne and Danielle’s shared goal to make a tangible difference to the lives of many customers with communication difficulties with this initiative comes to fruition.
Joanne concludes, ‘Whilst this status exists in places like schools, councils, fire stations, and police stations, we want to make NatWest Group the first UK bank where its entire branch network is accredited as Makaton friendly.’
We’re encouraged that there’s people like Joanne and Danielle trying to inspire others within the bank to learn some of the programme too, and it’ll be interesting to see how their vision transpires in the future.
Today, everyone should be able to have their voice heard.
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