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Disabled in Grad School: Augmentative and Alternative Communication Awareness Month

Dos and Don'ts for communicating with an AAC user in your class.


October 22, 2017

Alyssa is a doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island. Follow them @yes_thattoo or check out their personal blog.

communication board.jpg

This post is part of a (somewhat loose) series about being disabled at university, with a focus on graduate school: problems we encounter, how we deal with them, and what you can do that will make things easier for fellow graduate students with disabilities.

October is Augmentative and Alternative Communication Awareness month. Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) is an umbrella term for communication strategies that people use when speech is impossible or insufficient. Sometimes this means grabbing a pen and paper to write notes. Sometimes it means a scanning and switch system like what Stephen Hawking uses – the computer moves through options, and the user stops the computer when it gets to the right one. It can also mean using a picture board, a mobile application, or any number of other strategies to communicate.

Earlier this month, I mentioned that I have slightly unusual classroom accommodations, but I never said what they were. I get to use AAC for teaching and class participation as needed. When I can talk, I do. When I can’t talk or can’t talk very well, I mostly wind up writing. Sometimes I use FlipWriter or Proloquo4Text, two iOS applications good for in-person typed communication.

How likely is it that you’ll have a professor, a classmate, or a student who uses AAC? I don’t know. I know I’m the first person to have this as a formal accommodation at my university. However, there are others elsewhere – the chapter I wrote over the summer was about teachers who use Augmentative and Alternative Communication. And I know the ubiquity of tablets is making the option available to more people than ever before. Whatever the likelihood of your encountering an AAC user at university is, I’d say it’s increasing.

So, what should you do if you have an AAC user in your class? And what shouldn’t you do?

Don’t try to finish our sentences or guess what we’re saying. Correcting you will often take longer than finishing the message would.

Do allow extra time to respond. I type about 60 words per minute. That’s faster than average, but onversational speech is usually between 120 and 200 words per minute. My faster-than-average typing is less than half as fast as your conversational speech, and most AAC users are not faster-than-average typists.

Don’t restrict access to our communication systems. This is functionally equivalent to taping our mouths shut. This is (hopefully) less of an issue in college and graduate school, since we’re all adults but, yes, teachers do this to elementary students who are talking out of turn with their devices. If it becomes a classroom management issue, handle it the same way you would if we were using our mouths.

Do provide discussion questions ahead of time. This ties in with allowing extra time to respond: if we know the question, we can formulate a response ahead of time. This moves some of the extra response time outside the flow of discussion and lets us make longer responses. (This is how Stephen Hawking does interviews that appear to be in real time.)

Don’t project how you think you’d feel about not being able to talk onto us. I had a student do this to me while I was assisting in an electrical engineering lab. It was awkward, because I was trying to help her fix a circuit and she kept telling me how sad it was that I couldn’t talk. Don’t do this.

Do ask how to be a better communication partner. These are reasonable places to start, but by no means an end. As the people involved and the AAC systems used vary, so will the best things to do. Ask! (It’s best to do this outside working time. Go get coffee or something.) Then listen to what they tell you, even if it’s different from what I said here.

For more information about AAC, you can visit the International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication. For additional writing by AAC users, you can read Typed Words, Loud Voices or Speaking up and spelling it out: Personal essays on augmentative and alternative communication. I also have an AAC tag on my blog.

[Image is a selfie Alyssa took with their most-used AAC system for a prior AAC awareness month.]


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