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To initiate repair or not? Coping with difficulties in the talk of adults with intellectual disabilities

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Charles Antaki, Deborah Chinn, Chris Walton, W. M.L. Finlay, Joe Sempik

King's Authors


How do health and social care professionals deal with undecipherable talk produced by adults with intellectual disabilities (ID)? Some of their practices are familiar from the other-initiated repair canon. But some practices seem designed for, or at least responsive to, the needs of the institutional task at hand, rather than those of difficult-to-understand conversational partners. One such practice is to reduce the likelihood of the person with ID issuing any but the least repair-likely utterances, or indeed having to speak at all. If they do produce a repairable turn, then, as foreshadowed by earlier work on conversations with people with aphasia, their interlocutors may overlook its deficiencies, respond only minimally, simply pass up taking a turn, or deal with it discreetly with an embedded repair. When the interlocutor does call for a repair, they will tend to offer candidate understandings built from comparatively flimsy evidence in the ID speaker’s utterance. Open-class repair initiators are reserved for utterances with the least evidence to go on, and the greatest projection of a response from the interlocutor. We reflect on what this tells us about the dilemma facing those who support people with intellectual disabilities.

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