Sunday, 27 October 2013

Presuming Competence

Last week in my Assistive Tech class, we had the honor of meeting a young lady who came to show us how she uses her AAC (Augmentative Alternative Communication) device.  She was unable to use her own voice and had a form of cerebral palsy that did not allow her to have regular control of her arms and legs.  However, she had control of her head and that is what she used to activate switches.  She had a two switch system with an Eco device to communicate with the class.  She was very adept at utilizing the two switches to communicate with the class.  Even so, waiting to hear what she had to say required us to be patient because while this gal was quickly using the switches, it took time for her to formulate her sentences due to how the device functioned.

It was amazing in terms of her perseverance to see the hard work she needed to do to complete a sentence.  Many switch activations were required to create each word.  But the bottom line was that even though this was hard work, she had a voice.  No matter what else is discussed, she made it clear that she was happy that she had a voice and was able to communicate.  She used her skills to write poetry and to put the poetry to music.  She texted her friends.  She could use social media.  All the things a teenager finds important today.

Seeing her in the class made the urgency to work to give our students who are non-verbal a voice even more urgent to me.  In the past I was happy to give students low tech devices such as pictures for picture exchange.  I  know this has a place for students as they learn, but I was soon to find out the limits of such communication. As part of the class we had to do an experiment with pictures.  We were to set up a communication board of no more than 25 pictures and then sit down and have a meal with others, using only the board to communicate. This was my board:
I decided to give my son the task to use the board so I could observe and take notes.  We were having a family dinner with his brothers present and we were watching Sunday night football while eating.  I had to remind him a couple of times that he could not talk and could only use his communication board.  After about ten minutes, he declared, "This is stupid.  You don't have the right words on here."  He was frustrated that he couldn't join in the conversation about the football game and couldn't request certain foods because they weren't on his board.

This gave me a lot to think about.  We often give students boards that we think will be suitable without creating different boards for different situations.  We think the board we set up will be fine in a variety of situations and often populate the board with nouns to name items.  The boards I have seen do not incorporate the 5 W's that are so important to conversations. The board is limiting in conversations with others in social situations and make it difficult to interact in a conversation, forcing the person to sit on the sidelines of a conversation.

While the AAC device this gal was using allowed her to create the topics, it still limited her participation because it was slow to create what she wanted to say.  In order for her to fully participate, it would require others in the conversation to be patient while she responded. This does not appear to be the norm in our society.  We are so impatient that to really "let" a person in the conversation does not seem to be a possibility in a classroom unless a skillful teacher created the space for a child to participate with an AAC device such as the one this gal was using. This would be the key - a teacher willing to make that space happen for a student using an AAC device to fully participate; to be fully included in the classroom.

In the next while, I will sit in on a SETT framework for a student who is non-verbal.  Our goal, at this point, is to get him ready for high school.  Currently, he uses some picture exchange to communicate.  I hope to try an experiment at the start of his meeting.  If my colleagues agree, I would like to create a copy of his current communication device (pictures) for each participant in the meeting.  To start the meeting, I will make the rule that only I will be able to talk, and everyone else will only be able to communicate with the pictures.  I will bet that this little experiment will not last long.  Hopefully, that will lead us to a discussion around what this student will need to communicate as he moves to high school.  Although I do wonder why nothing has been done before now. . .

In the case of the student who visited our class, her mom took the bold move and presumed her daughter's competence.  She believed her daughter was intelligent and needed a way to communicate with others.  I wonder if this other student's parents did the same or were they encouraged by the experts to believe he was not capable enough to communicate.  Bilken and Burke (2006) state that it is up to the observer to admit that one cannot know another's thinking unless the other can reveal it. It refuses to limit opportunity; by presuming competence, it casts the teachers, and parents, and others in the role of finding ways to support the person to demonstrate his or her agency. (p.167)  It is up to us to find a way to let these students demonstrate their abilities.  We need to see their strengths and look for the best way to find their tool to communicate.

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