The book is called Rehabilitation: A Post-Critical Approach.
The story was about a high school student whose most efficient way of communicating was to speak in a way that wasn’t intelligible by others—but which her mother could easily translate. The student was able to use a voice-generating device, but said it was slow, cumbersome and tiring. She only used it at school where no one understood her speech.
Which way of “speaking” is better? Using the voice device would give the student a higher score on a rehab test of “independent communication,” but the student said speaking with the support of her mother is much easier and faster.
I reached out to Barbara and learned that this story was contributed by Gail Teachman, who worked for over 20 years as an occupational therapist at Holland Bloorview. She just completed her PhD in philosophy at the University of Toronto’s Rehabilitation Science Institute. Gail co-wrote one of the chapters in Barbara’s book.
Gail’s doctoral research involved interviewing 13 high school students who used alternative and augmentative communication (AAC) about what inclusion means to them. The term AAC is used broadly, to include voice devices, gestures, pictures, utterances and other ways of expression. Gail encouraged participants to communicate in their preferred modes and in any way they felt most comfortable.
“A lot started off wanting to impress me and show what a 'good' communicator they are using technology,” Gail said. “But once they relaxed into the interview, they more often relied on a family member as a communication partner and I was able to see how they more typically communicate.”
All chose to have a mother or sibling participate so that they could use speech or gestures, which their family member translated, to save energy.
“Even as a seasoned AAC clinician, I understood very little of their speech. This is not speech most people would understand at first. It was like having a door opened to a room that I had never been in because the person felt comfortable and the family understood just about everything the youth said. It was a privilege for me to see that these families have learned to understand their child’s communication in ways that are different but no less valuable. It was so rich and so moving.”
At the same time, Gail said, the teens and young adults noted that they can’t converse this way in public because “it’s devalued there.”
Ironically, many of these youth, who are labelled “non-speaking,” speak all the time at home, Gail said.
“One of the things I looked at in my research was why we put so much emphasis on what we call ‘independent communication.’ We could do so much more in our work to advocate for communicative competency as being a shared concept. That it’s not about changing the way ‘they’ communicate, but to turn it on ourselves and consider how socially we’re stuck in thinking there’s only one way to communicate: that approximating oral speech is the best way. Instead, we might consider our own ability to converse with people who talk in different ways.”
Gail said some great work is being done about communication as a shared concept at Communication Disabilities Access Canada.
Typically, Gail said, people who use different ways of communicating have been excluded from participating in research. “It’s thought that they wouldn’t be able to respond to questions, or that their responses wouldn’t be valid. My research used the work of sociologists and linguists to argue that if a person is communicating—whether it’s with a device or facial expression or dysarthric speech or with a communication partner who understands them—their talk is no less valuable or true.”
Her research also found that using a voice device is devalued in society at large.
“I found that even when a person became quite competent at using a device, it didn’t mean that when they went to the mall they felt included. Participants told me: “People don’t stop, they don’t wait, and they don’t value what I have to say.” The technology itself can be intimidating and discourage interaction, Gail said.
One young man who joined a wheelchair hockey league talked about how no matter how much training the coaches had, they talked to him like he was a little kid. He felt that because he used a voice device, they assumed that he wasn't very smart.
The youth in Gail’s study preferred to go places with a parent or support worker because it “helps them feel safe and able to interact in a world that is constructed for people who use clear oral speech. But that’s termed ‘dependency’ and is too often considered lacking in some way.”
She stressed how much we inadvertently limit youth when we overemphasize the value of independent speech.
“It may take five minutes for someone to make a sentence on a device and that’s exhausting,” Gail said. “Without question, technology can improve the lives of children with communication impairments. But with certain questions they could turn to a communication partner and basically say ‘Can you take this one for me?’—and because of their shared history, the partner can help them get their message across more easily. As long as we hold up independent speech as the best way to communicate, we only allow ourselves to see a part of what that young person wants to share.”
Stay tuned for more on what high school students in Gail’s research said about inclusion.