Almost every single day I leave the house I end up in an awkward (at best) or infuriating (at worst) conversation with people who have no understanding of good AAC etiquette. Most abled folks have no experience talking with somebody like me – and that lack of experience, not to mention just ingrained ableism, shows in their behavior. Here are the things I wish everybody knew about treating me well when I am communicating differently than they expect.
The most important thing I can recommend is, just ask the person you’re talking to how to interact with them respectfully! Every AAC user has different needs and preferences, so while I think my advice below contains good starter recommendations for many AAC users you might meet, it is best to check with the individual person you are talking to what they prefer.
Be patient! Most of us need extra time to communicate, possibly quite a lot of extra time. I get that as a speaking person you might feel uncomfortable with stretches of silence you’re unaccustomed to, but please resist the temptation to fill it while I am typing. Otherwise by the time I am ready to press play you might be on a totally different topic, or you may have distracted me so much I wasn’t able to get out what I really wanted to. To me, my typing is just as much a part of my turn talking as is the part where my device actually reads my words, so if you would not interrupt a speaking person in the middle of their sentence, do not interrupt my typing either.
Some of us are d/Deaf or hard of hearing, have auditory processing issues, or have other receptive communication impairments, but many of us can understand your speech just fine! So please ascertain whether we actually need it before you start gesturing at us or writing everything down.
It is hard for me to participate equitably in meetings and other group discussions. I feel pressured to give up and speak if I want a chance to be listened to, or pressured to switch from my symbols AAC app to the QWERTY one I often can type faster on. Many days giving in and doing that means I have a meltdown or shutdown later. You might see me speaking and think it is comfortable, but in reality it may just be that you are creating an environment where I feel like I have no other choice, and you do not see the fallout later. For me it seems like the best way to include me in big discussions is to designate somebody to call the names of people who have raised their hands to show they want a turn to talk. It might feel more formal than your organization is used to, but it is the best way to include me in a way that respects my communication needs.
Please don’t read over my shoulder and try to finish my sentences for me. I might choose to show you my screen sometimes to keep our conversation private, but it should be up to me, so ask before reading over my shoulder. I’m happy to show you my screen if you don’t understand the device’s pronunciation the first time, or if I know you have auditory processing problems or other relevant disabilities. Some AAC users request that support people do attempt to guess the rest of what they’re saying, to decrease the amount of labor it takes to type, but if I haven’t asked you for that kind of help it’s rude to constantly be trying to talk for me.
Don’t take my AAC away for any reason*! Medical professionals, I’m looking at you. It is vital that I have as many communication options as possible especially in emergency healthcare settings, so if you’re going to confiscate my device you need to provide me with an equitable option – not just pen and paper. (Backstory = some psych wards don’t allow any electronics that have camera functions. This is sanist garbage; other hospital units are just as subject to privacy laws but don’t have the same rules.) Other AAC users face this breach of decency from caregivers or support staff, and it’s ableist and/or ageist bullshit every time. As advocates often say, “if you wouldn’t duct tape someone’s mouth closed, don’t take away their communication device”. (*Okay, the one reason I’ll accept is if the device is likely to get damaged, such as in a swimming pool. In which case, you should attempt to take it away with my consent rather than without asking. You should also offer at least a basic replacement means of communication safe for that environment, such as laminated picture cards or a plastic letterboard.)
Please let me know if I need to turn the volume up or down. I do have auditory processing issues such that I can be a bad judge of whether my device is set to an appropriate volume. I do not mind you asking me to play my message more quietly or loudly.
I may speak part time! Actually, I often switch back and forth between communication methods within one conversation. This does not mean that you can expect or pressure me to speak at any given point. How I communicate is up to me, and you need to respect that I have valid reasons for my choices without me having to explain myself to you.
To reiterate, not every AAC user will share my preferences, but these points are a starting place you can work from as you find out what the person you’re talking with needs from you as a communication partner. If you are a speaking person with an AAC-using friend who is being treated badly by strangers who don’t know how to interact, use your voice to educate the person on how to be more respectful. It is scary and exhausting for me to do that work on my own in every little day to day interaction, and unfortunately people tend to respond better when my speaking friends explain my need for AAC than when I try to advocate for myself. If you’re not sure whether your friend would want you to intervene in this way, find a time you’re alone to ask whether it would be helpful for them or what they want you to say.
Are you an AAC user who has additional input or other preferences? Please feel free to comment below.