During my last week in placement one of my students asked me if I was nervous about my exam. I said I was (always!). She wished me luck and told me it would all be fine, not to worry.
And she said all of this without a word. Without a communication device. Without any traditional signing, and without any conversational context. She communicated all of this to me through body language, personal signs, and facial expression. There was a bit of guessing on my end and some explaining and re-explaining on hers. All-in-all the conversation that would have taken about 20 seconds verbally took us about 2 minutes. But we got there in the end, and that’s what mattered.
Around New Year’s I wrote a post about my experience of being voiceless for a day. The experience challenged me to renew my efforts to communicate with the students with whom communication was particularly difficult. It hugely paid off, my relationship with those students became much stronger when I became committed to spending the time and energy to let them express themselves.
Communication varies hugely from one individual to the next. For example, I have seen countless ways of saying yes and no. I had a student who said ‘aba’ for yes and pursed his lips to the side for no (think Maroney, “not impressed” meme).
One student looked up and to the left for yes and down and to the left for no. I currently work with a child who says ‘huh’ for yes and arches his back for no. One girl I worked with would stare at you without moving for no and would stare at you and nod her head down about a centimetre for yes. And that is just the beginning! That is just the most basic of communication.
Communication devices frustrate me. Why do we have bulky, heavy, clunky, complicated devices that people have to rely on for one of the most basic of human needs whilst we have paper-thin iPads for entertainment?? Moreover, I have come across many, many AACs that simply do not have appropriate vocabulary for the individual. I once sat down with a student and tried to have a conversation with her using solely her AAC. After a few minutes I became exasperated and said to her (verbally, cheating): “there’s nothing on here to say!” She shook her head emphatically and then pulled a “tell me about it!” face. I think this is changing, it is going the right direction, but certainly not fast enough.
The other day I was discussing with an OT on my team some of the communication barriers we are having with certain students at the moment. She mentioned that she thought it was an area we (the team) should do more in. I wholeheartedly agreed. Communication is emphasised in CE in theory/philosophy, but truthfully, I don’t think that it always is, practically. It seems to come down to the individual conductor or organisation whether or not communication is emphasized. There were a few talks in Munich on finding a place for communication devices in CE and I very much appreciated them.
Of course there are many ways to communicate, it is not simply through communication devices. I think that CE does equip individuals to communicate in many way. We teach movement; which allows for signing and body language, spontaneity; a vital part of true communication, self-efficacy; which can increase confidence and desire for communication, problem solving; which allows for more creative communication, etc. So, in the broad concept of communication, CE does a great job. However, I wonder if there is room to grow when it comes to communication devices, this is what I want to focus on here.
It is great if someone can get themselves to a restaurant by themselves, eat independently, and has the fine manipulation and math skills to pay. But if they cannot communicate their order, what is the point? If a child can walk across a room to get into class but cannot tell their friends what they did that weekend, have we accomplished what we are looking to accomplish? Can we be orthofunctional without communication? (Honest question, please throw in your thoughts!)
I think there are many difficulties to implementing good communication practices. A few that come to mind:
Time: CE that is forced into a sessional time frame of just a few hours will struggle to have the time necessary for proper communication emphasis. If a student is in a CE sessions for 2 hours we want to pack in as much input as we can in that time. That means that it may be a struggle to spend the time it takes to encourage legitimate communication.
Situation: Along the same lines, if we are only with a student in one environment, for a few hours at a time, we are not in the contexts and situations conducive to spontaneous, practical conversation. Across a school day there are many natural opportunities for legitimate communication, but in 2 hours of structured CE we have to be more intentional.
Equipment: As I mentioned above, a lot of communication devices are pretty crap. Some are just horrendously impractical. My brother has a device that weighs about half as much as he does! I think just as we advocate for appropriate walkers and braces, we should advocate for appropriate, practical communication aids.
Physical barriers: Generally, not a lot of time in a CE session is spent sitting at a table, or in a chair, etc. We move around, a lot. Many AACs do not lend themselves to use when the individual is lying on the ground, on a scooter, etc. So the actual physical positions we use can make access difficult.
(I am just pointing out some problems, I don’t have solutions! As always, would love to hear thoughts from the CE community.)
When it comes to communication devices, I try to have them available as often as humanly possible. It takes a bit of extra effort, but I try to keep aids in reach. I may ask that a conversation wait for a more appropriate time, but I do not determine when and where my students can communicate by giving them their devices only at certain times. How can we encourage spontaneity without giving them the tools to be spontaneous?
*As a slight aside: I have seen people take communication aids from children because they are “talking” when they should not be. This makes me furious! It would be like duct taping a verbal child’s mouth closed. They need to be taught to communicate appropriately, just as all children need to be taught. Taking away a communication device should never be a consequence for behaviour. (My exception to this rule is if the student is going to damage the device, or damage something with the device, through their actions).
Communication is a basic human right. I want to do everything in my power to create the appropriate conditions for my students to have that right. If CE is to be holistic, we cannot be dismissive of this. I don’t have all the answers, I just want to make sure I am actively seeking them.
I have mainly focused on communication devices but of course that is not the only form of communication. More on that later. But for now: How do you incorporate AACs into CE? How do you think we can improve in this area?