Do’s and Don’ts of AAC - Access to AAC

AAC users should be able to say what they want, when they want, so they must have access to their AAC system all the time! The rest of the team also needs fast and instant access to the AAC system. How else will they model?

A few times in my life I have lost my voice. A rather disastrous thing for a Speech Pathologist! Suddenly just not being able to talk, not being able to tell people what to do, or what I thought - I did not enjoy it at all! For most of us, we have our voice, available to use as we wish, when we wish. Can you imagine if someone took that privilege away from you?
For many individuals with little or no speech, their voice lies in their AAC system. If they wish to communicate what they want, when they want, they must be able to access that AAC system. It is no good to them in the cupboard. It is no good to them if the battery is flat. It is no good to them if it is still in their school bag. Deciding that the AAC system should only be used at school or at mealtimes or at McDonalds is no good to them. Having access to their AAC system, then, becomes the responsibility of all the members of the team. 
If a person has a physical impairment, we do not take away their walker when they need to walk. If a person has a hearing impairment, we do not take away their hearing aides when they need to hear. If a person has a visual impairment, we do not take away their glasses when they need to see. So why do we take away a person’s AAC system when they need to talk?

Multi-modal communicators

It is often more complicated for many AAC users… many individuals have multiple ways to communicate their messages. Maybe they use a combination of vocalisations and word approximations, some gesture and sign language as well as their robust AAC system. Perhaps in the busy moving world they are in, it can be easier to rely on their vocalisations and gestures because it is faster and easier? We do need to value and appreciate all methods of communication, that is for sure.
But what happens when that communication fails, when we cannot understand what the individual is trying to tell us? What if the individual has WAY more to say, than they can communicate with the sounds and gestures alone? For many AAC users, they need all the words and language that is in their AAC system and that means it needs to be there, ready for them to use as soon as they need it.
I call my buddy Matthew, my best multi-modal communicator because he communicates very effectively using some words and vocalisations, combined with a great repertoire of signs. He uses these methods of communication all day and often they give him a fast way to get his message across. However, these things do not work so well with unfamiliar people. Nor does it help him to tell the teacher what he has learnt from the lesson on recycling. It also doesn’t help when Mum has NO idea what he is trying to tell her about what happened at school that day. This is when Matthew uses his AAC system. There are many many times in the day that he uses it because his words and signing are not always enough!

Boy using AAC system on iPad
Matthew using his AAC system to tell Mum about his school day

Making a paper-based AAC bookEveryone needs access to the AAC system!

But it is not enough to just let the AAC user access the AAC system - the rest of the team needs fast and instant access as well! How else will they model? Throughout AAC Awareness Month we have be talking about everyone in the team modelling language to individuals on an AAC system. How can we do that modelling if the AAC system is in the cupboard or out of charge? So strap on the AAC system and be ready to pick it up and model at any time. Think of how many teachable moments there are in your day! In Matthew’s case, his team keeps the AAC system out all the time so they can model words and sentences, and they do this whether Matthew is choosing to use the AAC system or not. Read more about accessories that can help to keep the AAC system accessible later in this post.
Another great way to have access to an AAC system is to consider having light-tech, paper-based options. Taking screen shots of key pages and printing and laminating them can be another great way to have access to the AAC system all the time, especially if, touch wood, something bad happens to the iPad! Learn how to create a paper-based book step-by-step.
Recently I was working in a classroom with only one iPad in the class, so we made some paper-based boards for the other students in the class to use while the teacher modelled on the iPad. In the classroom, many educators are making class-based charts of core words to put on their wall. This means that the core words are constantly available for modelling throughout the school day and often become part of their explicit teaching of words.

Paper Based Boards
Example of a paper-based board, from the video "Core Vocabulary and Communication" by Dynamic Learning Maps

Accessories can help to keep the AAC system accessible

Families and school staff may be concerned about the expense of replacing damaged devices and withhold access to keep devices “safe”. There are options to consider to protect devices so safety is not a reason to restrict access. And there are options available for users who want to have their AAC device remain within reach:

  • Cases: Seeing a video of an iOS device being dropped down the stairs or bounced off cement can reduce anyone's fears. There are so many cases available these days, it is impossible to keep up with all of them. And that’s a good thing. AAC users have a variety of choices and can select a case based on their unique needs and even favorite color! Cases can be soft and squishy or military-grade hardshells. One of the best places to review a wide variety of cases is Lauren Enders’ Pinterest board.
  • Straps: For users without mobility concerns, carrying their own device so their “voice” is with them wherever they go provides ideal access. Some users find wearing their device with a strap or harness helps keep both hands free when not communicating. Some users find using a protective case and a camera strap provides a workable option. Camera straps offer another way to personalize the AAC system and match the user’s personality.
  • Harnesses: Younger users might benefit from wearing a harness that holds the device. Harnesses can be more comfortable and distribute the weight of a larger device more securely.
  • Belt-clips: Adults who use smaller devices can consider a case that fits into a holster that attaches to a belt or a case with a belt-clip.
  • Mounts: AAC devices can be mounted on a desk, the counter, as well as a wheelchair. 

We communicate all day, so don’t limit an AAC users access to their AAC system!