Helping someone with intellectual disability during COVID-19

Posted 4 years ago by Rebecca St Clair
To help a person with intellectual disability deal with the unexpected changes faced during the COVID-19 outbreak, you may need to develop new strategies.  (Source: Shutterstock)
To help a person with intellectual disability deal with the unexpected changes faced during the COVID-19 outbreak, you may need to develop new strategies. (Source: Shutterstock)

Information about COVID-19 is continually changing as new information becomes available. It is important everyone understands the information so that they can prepare and protect themselves and others. 

For a person with an intellectual disability this could be more challenging. They may be at risk due to not being able to access clear information, low health literacy, or needing to rely on carers.

Some people with an intellectual disability may only have only mild difficulties understanding information about COVID-19. However, others may need your support to understand what is going on.

Chief Executive Officer of Council for Intellectual Disability, Justine O’Neill says, “There are over half a million people with an intellectual disability in Australia, and they have a right, just like anyone, to accessible and inclusive communications.”

Dealing with unexpected changes

Because of the nature of COVID-19 and the measure being used to help slow it’s spread, there may be a number of unexpected changes that need to be dealt with.  

These changes could include changes to: 

  • Personal routine. Social isolation and lock-downs are being imposed in many countries and states which may lead to changes in someones personal routine.

  • Carers and care requirements. Some regular care staff may not be able to offer care, for example, if they need to quarantine themselves. 

  • Diet, depending on the availability of certain foods in stores diets may need to change. 

To help a person with intellectual disability deal with the unexpected changes faced during the COVID-19 outbreak, you may need to develop new strategies. 

These strategies could range from taking more time to explain what is going on to developing new ways to incorporate things into a routine. 

For example, social isolation measures are leading to a number of locations closing or limiting the amount of people able to attend. 

This may mean that for someone with an intellectual disability they are not able to see people they normally see, attend the same groups, see their therapists or interact in the same way. 

To make the situation less stressful you may consider using online tools to help provide routine and interactions. These online tools could be:

  • Video calls with a therapist or friend.

  • Phone calls if they are not able to be set up online then a phone call may still be able to offer social interaction.

  • Online peer support networks. There may be a way to join an online group or forum with other people.

Changes to routines can be limited by maintaining as much of the existing routine as possible. This could be making sure they are still sleeping and waking up at the same time, taking their medication the same way or doing as many things at the usual time as possible. 

The NDIS website is advising providers to do what is necessary to ensure people “remain safe and have adequate supplies” during the outbreak of COVID-19. 

This may also include going to the pharmacy or grocery shopping on someone’s behalf.

A person with intellectual disability may have a diet that they follow or foods and textures that they prefer. With stores across the country experiencing shortages of some foods there may need to be changes made. 

To maintain a diet that someone is used to you may need to:

  • Consider different brands. Different brands may offer the same or similar foods and flavours. This may involve elements of trial and error. 

  • When you can find the desired brands or foods, buy two instead of one so there is more available to use. 

  • Trying other foods with similar textures and flavours.

  • While you still have some of the prefered foods available, try mixing it with a new brand or flavour to gradually transition to a food that is more available.

These changes can be unsettling and may increase levels of stress and anxiety in people with intellectual disability. 

Taking measures to ensure the changes are managed and explained to someone with an intellectual disability may be able to reduce the anxiety and stress they feel.

Explaining COVID-19

One of the ways to reduce stress and anxiety in unknown situations is understanding what is going on around you. 

Being able to understand why things have changed suddenly can make adjusting to the changes easier. 

There are a number of ways to explain COVID-19 to someone with an intellectual disability. 

When explaining COVID-19 to someone with an intellectual disability, you may need to take into consideration how you are sharing the information and how it will impact them. 

Easy read information

Easy read is a form of accessible information designed to be easy to understand for people with an intellectual disability. Easy read information can be used to explain complex information to someone with an intellectual disability. 

Easy read is information that is written in simplified english and is often supported by pictures. The pictures are used to help visualise the information in the text. 

For example if the text is talking about covering your nose when sneezing the picture will have someone covering their face to illustrate the gesture.  

Easy read information avoids complex language, uses short sentences, and avoids fancy fonts and italics.

A number of easy read materials are available to help you explain the virus to someone with an intellectual disability. 

Organisations that have made easy ready information available include:  

General information can also be accessed through the Australian Department of Health and the WHO

Read the information together with the person with intellectual disability to make sure they understand what the message is and answer any questions they may have.


If you are explaining COVID-19 to someone with an intellectual disability in person, you may need to allow more time and consider the way you are explaining information. 

By slowing down and modifying the way you speak, you can make sure the person you are talking to understands the information you are giving them. 

You may need to: 

  • Use simple, easy to understand language. Avoid long, complex sentences, technical words or jargon. Use everyday words that are easy to understand like “the patient needs help breathing” instead of “the patient is being given ventilatory support.”

  • Pause to enable the person to process what you are saying. 

  • Speak directly to the person.

  • Use visual cues – objects, pictures or diagrams to clarify meaning.

  • Ask questions to clarify what they are concerned about.

  • Use repetition and recap the key points at the end of the conversation.

For example, if you are explaining what COVID-19 is and that it is spreading quickly then you may need to use short sentences like “coronavirus (COVID-19) is a virus that has affected many people around the world.” You may then need to explain what a virus is as this may be a complex word. 

Remember to keep it simple and make sure the person you are talking to understands what you have told them at the end of the conversation. 

Related links: 

How are you getting your updates about COVID-19? Tell us in the comments below.