For those who use AAC, there are often layers of misunderstanding, ignorance, and judgement to wade through in everyday life as they simply try to communicate.
Whether it's a restaurant server who has never been exposed to augmentative communication and talks around a communicator, a teacher who doesn't realize that leaving the device in the backpack means this person has no way to speak, or a friend who assumes an AAC user is less intelligent or less capable simply because they don't speak aloud, these types of labels and conclusions can make life as an AAC user or AAC supporter even more complicated.
So what can we do to advocate for communicators and help others gain a better understanding and acceptance of those who do things a different, but very viable, way?
Examine Your Own Bias
It isn't pleasant or easy to admit that we may have a bit of bias of our own, but changing the world MUST start with changing ourselves. It's important to take a look at our own preconceptions and actions and then adjust our own thinking before we ask others to do the same.
One CoughDrop mom whose son has Autism and uses AAC recently shared this story about a trip to the zoo with her son and the revelations she uncovered about her own feelings.
As my son and I boarded the train, the woman who took our money looked at him and said, "Oh, he's one of THOSE kids."
I was ready to be offended, but I just smiled and said, "Yep, he's autistic, and he loves riding this train."
She got a huge grin on her face and said, "I am too, and I love this train too!"
And just like that, I realized how hypocritical I can be. I spend a lot of time talking about being more accepting of people we might think of as "different," yet here I was, so wrapped up in myself and my son, that I was ready to dismiss this person as rude instead of noticing what a great job she was doing and celebrating that. It was a great reminder that I need to do better at practicing what I preach.
We must be willing to look past our own ideas and notions in order to see the big picture. We can't be so arrogant as to assume that we cannot make mistakes or be the one who made poor judgements or misunderstood. Sometimes we will find that WE are the ones who need to do the changing – and we need to be brave enough to admit it.
Look for Chances to Teach NOT Degrade
When we run into a stereotype, it's important whenever possible that we take the time to correct the misunderstanding or bust the bias. A misguided person cannot be expected to appreciate the truth in situations for which they don't have correct information about the abilities and potential of AAC users.
When these circumstances come up – and they will – we need to see them as teaching moments and not offensive moments to disparage or degrade the people involved.
If we approach these incidents with a desire to educate others, we are more likely to have a positive interaction and those involved are more likely to WANT to do better in the future.
Maybe we can pre-emptively set an expectation by saying something like, "Ava speaks with a communication device, but she will let you know just what she wants if you'll give her a few moments to tell you." If a person tries to talk past the communicator you might say, "I'm not sure what he would like, John, what do you think we should do?"
There might be times when we need to step in and correct a rude behavior. If someone tries to talk about an AAC user in front of the communicator as if they aren't there we might say, "Whoa, Evan is sitting right here. We can ask him what he thinks, but let's not talk about him as if he can't understand."
Simple corrections can often go a long way in educating people on the BEST way to interact with AAC communicators. Let's remember that we ALL needed to learn these things at some point and we can work to help others learn as well.
Build a Communication Team
Inclusion and acceptance come one person, one understanding at a time – but that doesn't mean we have to do it alone. If we build a solid core of communication advocates that surround and support the AAC user suddenly no one person has to take on the task of managing EVERY situation and interaction by themselves.
By including teachers, therapists, neighbors, paraprofessionals, administrators, siblings, friends and more in the augmentative communication crew we can build a web of support to reinforce communication standards in every situation.
We might post a printed core board in the kitchen at Grandma's house for everyone to use at family events, let a Sunday School teacher know that the communicator would love a chance to pray in class with support, give out Christmas cards that share an AAC message so neighbors better understand this language, or volunteer to help our AAC user participate in a group project so you can model to their peers how to interact with the AAC communicator.
When we take the time to help a teacher or aide understand the importance of presuming competence or modeling words as they speak we build up the world around a communicator. Then there are new opportunities for learning and growth and we share the weight of these needs instead of carrying them all on our own. We begin to create a communication community – rather than living on an isolated AAC island.
Unfortunately, not everyone will step up to take part in these goals. Wouldn't it be great if everyone would. However, there IS someone – probably several someone's – in the life of the communicator who is willing to help. If we keep looking and keep offering opportunities there will be those who will come forward to become an advocate, a supporter, a friend. The more we offer such opportunities, we might be surprised just how big and strong this communication team will become.