Raise your hand if this has happened you.
Actually, don't, because you're probably reading this silently and you'll look silly if you do.
You walk into a classroom or community visit and find your student who uses an Alternative or Augmentative Communication (AAC) system or device doesn’t have it with them. It’s in a cubbie or backpack or drawer. Waiting. Uncharged. In pristine condition. The cellophane might still be on it.
I think if that piece AAC could talk, it would take you by the hand, give you great big puppy eyes and say mornfully, “I was designed to give your student a voice but I’m treated like an expensive paperweight.”
Did anyone care?
My greatest joy of working in education is that we work with people with hearts seven times bigger than the average person. We all care about students, well past our obligated 180 days of contractual caring. We care about their feelings, wants, and needs. We care about them being able to talk.
The issue in this particular situation isn’t usually lack of caring or empathy, it’s a perceived lack of resources. AKA, “It’s just one more thing to remember.” We can empathize with feeling overwhelmed, but not accept that voices are left in drawers.
Here are 5 of my favorite tried-and-true ways to ensure the voice is out of the drawer and in the hands of the students who need it:
1. Do a task analysis of the student’s schedule. Take a look at each period or station of the day and find examples of when teachers and students would use communication. Communication should happen in the bathroom, at math, and in the pool, just like for non-AAC users. Find ways to make those opportunities to communicate accessible through modeling, rich and thoughtful intervention, and access to evidence-based language representation. In other words: there’s no reason why words aren’t available and modeled all day, every day!
2. Provide some supports. Outline in painters tape where the device is supposed to go on a desk to remind staff if that square is empty. Set placemats and inexpensive device holders in key places around the room. Get the student strap or hands-free harness. Get a portable battery pack. Human-made problems (voice in a drawer) have human-made solutions, you just need to find it (or find someone to help you find it).
3. Low Tech with High Utility. Light tech is an easy and cheap way to make sure everyone has access to language. Tape light tech core word boards to key areas like centers, play area, vocational stations, and the bathroom. Give staff miniature core boards on their lanyards or communication supports on their key rings. Wear aprons or core word shirts. Temporary tattoos. Bonus: Hardcore permanent tattoos. Don’t believe your mom, an AAC tattoo is timeless and will look fantastic in your 80s!
4. Come to an understanding: sometimes we need to pause as a staff and deepen our knowledge about AAC best practices. We offer some great services and professional development. Perhaps you didn’t even know what PATINS offers for AAC. Send us an email, we’d love to chat about you’re wanting to do at your school.
5. Last but not least: Does your staff understand WHY we want to design 500+ opportunities to communicate a day? This is my favorite video that captures my why: that our students need words, many words, and words all the time. What is your why? Does your staff know their why?
AAC isn’t another thing to do. It’s the thing we do. We are all responsible for developing communication skills in our students, it’s the bedrock of learning, connection and being human. It is the best work we will ever do, and it does not belong in a drawer.