Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) can be used by people who cannot rely on speech. We can start an AAC journey by presuming competence. When we presume competence, we understand that opportunities and instruction are needed. Doing this is often called the "Least dangerous assumption". As in, it is far more dangerous, to not believe and do nothing.
“Start by presuming that your learner is on their way to developing competence. Good intervention, consistent language models, the right tools, and plenty of practice will move them along the journey toward improved communication. It’s important that, we truly believe that. Yes, your clients may be impaired, perhaps significantly so, but they will certainly know if you don’t believe in their abilities. Presume competence.” Carole Zangari from Praactical AAC.
Presuming competence for AAC users is based on two principles. These apply to all human beings, regardless of diagnosis or degree of difference from the typically developing norm:
- Everyone has something to say
- Everyone can learn
Everyone has something to say
Every person, regardless of how they appear to the outside observer, has a unique and rich inner life. This life is full of feelings, observations, preferences, opinions, stories, memories, and dreams. Whether or not a person has the means to express his or her inner life in an understandable and consistent way, it is real and it is there. Our goal should be to allow every communicator to express his or her inner life in a way that is accessible to the user and understandable to the person listening. This rich inner life extends beyond just requesting. It includes all the many reasons people communicate with each other.
Everyone can learn
When a person is not able to communicate using speech, we can’t have accurate knowledge of that person’s ability to understand and use language. Because we just don’t know the person’s skills or potential, we must make the least dangerous assumption and presume competence.
We don’t and can’t know what that person’s potential is until we provide him or her with accessible tools, and the time and training needed to use those tools.
Everyone can learn and grow, given appropriate training and tools. This doesn’t mean that everyone can learn everything. You may never be a championship skier, but with appropriate instruction and practice and ski equipment that fits you properly, you can learn basic moves and become more skilled. But without skis and instruction, you will never realize your potential as a skier. It’s the same with communication for non-speaking people. Everyone has potential, but the right AAC system and effective instruction are needed before that potential can be revealed and realized.
3 considerations for choosing an AAC system that presumes competence
When we believe that everyone has something to say, and everyone can learn, it influences the AAC system and vocabulary we choose. How can we be sure to use a vocabulary that allows people to reveal and realize their potential?
1. Give them words
People with little or no speech are in a unique and vulnerable position. They literally can’t say what we don’t give them the words for. This is why we should choose a vocabulary that gives access to as many words as possible. We just don’t know what someone who can’t speak will want to say when they’re given a voice with all the words.
In addition to a rich vocabulary, AAC users need access to the grammatical forms of the words in the AAC system. This includes plurals, possessives and verb endings. Research shows that AAC users have particular difficulty learning grammar. While there are a variety of possible causes for this, one clear issue is that of grammatical forms not being available on an AAC system. If they're not there, the AAC user won't be able to learn or use them!
2. Communicate for all the reasons
There are so many different reasons why people communicate. We often start with requesting when we teach AAC, because this feels like the easiest place to start. But there are so many other reasons that humans communicate to express their rich inner lives. If we’re presuming competence, we must presume that everyone needs access to all these reasons to communicate.
3. Access to the alphabet
An AAC system should not only presume competence for learning a symbol-based communication system. It should also presume competence for learning some level of literacy. The ability to spell independently can give freedom of expression to an AAC user. He or she will no longer be dependent on a caregiver or therapist to add words to the AAC system. However, even if full literacy isn’t reachable, any degree of spelling is an asset. For example, being able to use initial letter sounds or invented spelling to express something that is not in the AAC vocabulary is an invaluable skill. An AAC system that presumes competence and the ability to learn should also give easy and full access to the alphabet!
All humans should be treated with respect and dignity. Someone with a communication difficulty or speech impediment or disorder using AAC, is no different. Presume competence in someone's abilities, in their unique skills, and in their individual thoughts. Our attitude to their communication and learning matters.
There are not any prerequisites to using AAC. Communicators should not have to demonstrate certain skills before they can be eligible to access AAC. They are never too young or too old to start AAC. They do not have to prove themselves. Presuming competence means an AAC user is given the tools and instruction they need to learn, regardless of their speech impediment, diagnosis or degree of difference.
The next step
Presuming competence means we presume everyone is a unique individual with something to say.
Once we have done this, we can select a balanced AAC system that gives the AAC user the words they need.
Everyone can learn. Everyone has something to say. But we won’t know what that is until give them the chance.
Links & References
- Beukelman, D., & Mirenda, P. (2013). (Eds.), Augmentative and Alternative Communication (4th Ed.). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.
- Don’t Demand Prerequisite Skills, by Jane Farrall
- “Least Dangerous Assumption” by Cheryl Jorgensen, Ph.D. (PDF)
- Presuming Competence, by Jennifer Marden on our blog
- Presuming Maggie's Competence, a personal story on our blog