If you have a child who doesn’t follow the typical path it’s difficult to have a sense of where they will end up. I don’t mind this too much; I don’t find it that useful to have conversations about what Sam may, or may not, be doing in ten years time.
But everyone looks for role models for themselves or their kids, and some sense of where the path might be going. Disabled adults are rarely found in mainstream media, so I was lucky recently to be at a study day where a panel of five Alternative and Augmentative Communication (AAC) users answered questions from the audience using high tech devices. Three of the five used eyegaze, exactly like Sam is learning to. There is a video here.
It is important, and inspiring (not in an inspiration-porn kind of way) to see people using AAC to talk so eloquently. THAT is where we want to aim for.
But I was really struck by something that one of the panellists – Kate Caryer – said at the event: she pointed out that people sometimes think of a communication aid as a gift or a toy, that users should feel grateful their local authorities have provided. Whereas it is in fact a human right.
Respecting Sam’s right to communicate means his device needs to be there, in front of him, as much as possible, not just when we decide we can fit it into his daily life. We need to make sure the batteries are charged, and the mounting arm is ready when it is needed. We need to force ourselves to fit it even when it feels like a bit too much effort on a busy day.
But more profoundly, we have to be ready to hear what is being communicated. We have to alter our own culturally-constructed notion of how conversations work.
I find it uncomfortable to leave gaps in conversation – I feel I have to fill them. I first realised this when we lived in the Middle East and would spend time with Syrian friends who were happy to sit companionably with long pauses in conversation. I had to teach myself to enjoy this time and not fill the gaps with mindless waffle. This was made easier by my rudimentary Arabic.
Someone using a communication aid to talk is probably going to take longer, more time than a typical talking person. At the study day, it took time for the five individuals there to answer questions from the audience: they need to hear the question, navigate (with eyes or fingers) around their communication device to find the vocabulary for what they want to say, and then speak it.
This often makes conversation with an AAC user slower than we are used to, and I for one need to force myself to accept that rhythm of speech. This means waiting the extra 30 seconds to see what your conversational partner wants to say, and not interrupting. Sam isn’t able to shout immediately, in the way that Eli does frequently, ‘Mummy, I was actually in the middle of talking when you interrupted me!’
I frequently screw up even when I am trying my best. I realised recently that after a conversation with a woman who uses a communication aid, I had said goodbye and walked away. I hadn’t waited to see if she wanted to say goodbye, or even if she had anything else to say. I felt a little sting of shame when I later realised. We can all have good intentions, but we don’t always behave as well as we’d like.
If you manage to fully embrace the alternative pace, there are rich rewards. A few years ago when Sam was just learning to look at Yes and No symbols on the armrests of his wheelchair to answer questions, we went to a local park and met some friends. One of them, who happens to be a nurse, crouched down in front of Sam so she was at his level, asked Sam if he was enjoying his new school, and then waited.
Sam slowly and deliberately looked down at the Yes symbol. It was the first time he had totally independently answered a question from a stranger, and it happened because she asked the question in the right way for him.
If we accept that people with communication difficulties have a right to talk – and therefore to be given the support, equipment and training they need – then they also have the right to be heard. And we, the people taking our communication skills for granted, have to learn how to listen. Not make assumptions about what is being said, or interrup, or fill the gaps in conversation with inconsequential waffle, but actually listen.
I mean it’s a good tip for life generally – many marriages could benefit from partners actually listening to what each other are saying. But rather than forcing the AAC user to navigate their way through their devices to say ‘Stop interrupting me’, maybe we should just take it upon ourselves to get our own houses in order.