The personal communication between each other is a central part of what makes us human but for some disabled people who have no speech, speech impairments or other speech or language difficulties, the ability and indeed right to communicate with others can be significantly compromised and this is where the need for argumentative and alternative communication (AAC), communication aids, comes into place.
The story of AAC can be seen in parallel to the incredible story of technology, where the computer and other devices, as well as the internet, has dramatically transformed the lives of so many disabled people who would have simply been regarded as unable to communicate, let alone work, in a previous era. This is a story that is indeed personal for me as without this technology, I am sure the totality of my existence would have been basket weaving, or rather trying to, in a day care service rather than being the active person I am today.
I use a communication aid, a Lightwriter, as backup to my preferred method of speaking, which is being translated by my personal assistants for those who have ‘listening difficulties’. The fact I use speech and a communication device can be seen in how I used both methods when I starred in ‘I’m Spazticus’. I think it is important to note that communication aids do not need to be high tech to be useful and I would advocate that it is important for people to have a range of methods available to them to suit the occasion. I also appreciate that as someone with a speech impairment, I am indeed an ‘AAC’ user, I do not experience the same level of difficulties as someone who has no speech and therefore may have a stronger identity as an ‘AAC User’.
One of the downsides of communication aids is the price of what is often very high tech and specialist equipment, especially when someone is also unable to use a keyboard and uses switches or now eye-gazing technology. This means that many people who use communication aids can not simply go out and buy what they need outright, and therefore means they are dependent on funding from the state or others. The iPad, and its relevantly low price, has however been one of those step change moments for the AAC industry, giving an affordable communication aid to so many people including many who would simply not previously be deemed as eligible or able to benefit from one. However, the iPad or other tablets is not suitable for everyone and while it has been fashionable to push the majority of AAC Users to having iPads, it is important people get what they actually need.
Within England, the funding and provision of communication aids has been since April 2013 in the hands of NHS England as a specialist service for the most part out of the hands of local CCGs. One of the significance improvements to be made from the NHS changes is that on paper at least, the NHS now realises the need to providing someone of any age with a communication aid as a health need, for however long it is needed, in the same way as other technical aids like wheelchairs or hearing aids. Before this point, it was at the discretion of each old PCT, as well as educational authorities, and very much a postcode lottery from impairment to impairment. Many people who need communication aids still find it difficult to gain state funding for what suitable devices they need and therefore have to fund it themselves or rely on support from charities.
I am not sure if it is any better but the important point that everyone must have the right to communicate, in the same way as personal mobility, has been made and won. For myself, having a voice and being able to communicate with others is not just a politically correct good thing but it is an important key and starting point to providing people with the ability to self-determined their lives, taking advantage of their rights, as well as their responsibilities. The right communication aid can revolutionise the lives so many people society would have previously just written off, and as someone who has many friends with no speech, I have been privileged to see the benefits they can bring for myself.
If we wish all disabled people to be included into society as fully active contributing citizens, this must include those with speech and language difficulties. I feel as someone with a speech impairment, it is one of the last taboos society has in terms of disability compared to how we see wheelchair users and others. Communication aids as well as other technology gives people the ability to take up their rightful place in society and to be seen as well as heard, helping society to embrace speech difficulties as just part of life. More importantly, communication aids give people their own voice and so enabled society to recognise their personhood in their own right as fellow citizens.