AAC for your environment

I gave a presentation at AAC in the Cloud a couple weeks ago about backup AAC methods for when your primary communication method isn’t a good option, and decided to turn some of the content into blog posts for folks who aren’t video/slideshow type people. The first post was full of ideas for AAC that is wearable or highly portable, but in this post I want to tell you my ideas for communication supports you can work into your environment so that you’re never left without a way to communicate.

Some of these require that you have a fair amount of say over your own living space and work or school environment, so this is a good opportunity to practice self-advocacy skills around your access to communication supports. Please seek out support from other disabled activists or disability legal organizations if you encounter resistance from the people who control the environment you want to add AAC backups to. You have the right to have access to whatever communication methods you want at all times, not just your primary method when it’s most convenient for speaking people!

It’s worth mentioning that any of you who are not AAC users should feel free to use any of these ideas solely as models too, not putting pressure on the AAC user you’re supporting to use them in return. There is value in consistently demonstrating what symbols are connected to what letters are connected to what sounds, regardless of whether the AAC user ever chooses to use that exact communication support to express themselves. Many of us need visual input in order to understand you well anyway, and we need to see that it’s okay to switch between different communication methods, so you utilizing any of these ideas as a conversation partner is worthwhile whether or not we end up preferring the same methods.

One of the benefits of working backup AAC methods into your living spaces is that they can make communication quicker due to the fact that they’re designed for that environment. For example, to say, “stove on high?” in my device I have to navigate through various subfolders with nine button presses, but if I have a chart listing the different settings posted near the stove, all I have to do to confirm with my support staff what I’m supposed to do next is point to the chart’s symbol labeled “high”. A lot of the ideas listed here will sound like direct selection, but almost any of them can be used with partner assisted scanning instead, or head mounted laser pointers for folks who have more control over their head movements than their hands or feet. 

Personally, most of my environmental AAC is in my kitchen, because that’s where I most frequently need to communicate with my support staff. We have a letterboard taped to the microwave and a symbols strip taped to the counter. Or when I lived with roommates, we had a giant whiteboard in the kitchen for announcements and phone messages but that I ended up using as AAC sometimes. Another option is to use magnetic letters or words on your fridge. In the dining room, you could put a custom placemat at the dinner table or high chair, or use a stack of passable communication cards with fringe vocabulary specific to meal time. Cooking and eating is a time you might want to set your device aside to avoid mess, so these are settings you might especially want to use backups in.

In your living room, try placing a strip with pictures of favorite characters at the bottom of your television – or taped to the remote control – so you can pick out what movie you want to watch. Another idea is to put pictures of different kinds of Lego structures on the outside of the toy bin so that AAC users can tell their playmates what they want to build next. If you want access to core vocab on the same support, you can add words like watch, play, build, want, next, and all done, to these.

For families and people who share a bedroom, it’s a great idea to keep a giant letterboard with core words on the bedroom wall. You can keep a laser pointer on your bedside table for when you want to chat when you’re supposed to be asleep, like JJ uses in the show Speechless. Another good option for when you’re supposed to be asleep, or just when you can’t cope with bright lights, is a letterboard made from glow in the dark puff paint. An additional option for bedroom AAC is to put symbols for clothing items and different colors on the outside of a closet door or dresser to encourage self determination during dressing. If you have a bookshelf in your room but can’t reach all the shelves, have a strip of book cover images low down for when you want to request a certain story.

Having AAC backups in the bathroom is particularly important for folks who need support people with them there, and it’s another situation you might want to avoid using a primary communication device if you’re worried about water exposure. So one option is a laminated symbols board in the shower featuring fringe words for bathing. For folks with some handwriting skills, soap crayons in the tub are easy to clean up later. And a small communication board near your toilet or changing table that includes words like stop, no, and do it myself, can encourage bodily autonomy and consent.

Even those of us who usually wear our primary AAC method on a strap or harness might not want to lug it around during playtime in the yard, so here’s a few ideas for outdoor backups. First, you can keep sidewalk chalk on the patio for writing and drawing messages. If you have play equipment, affix several well laminated communication cards to the chains on a swingset using keyrings, or tape symbols for vocabulary like up, down, again, now, and all done, to the side of a slide. If you have a pool or hot tub, use zip ties to wrap a laminated letterboard around a foam pool noodle or inflatable inner tube. 

Maybe a lot of you work in schools or attend school, so let’s talk about environmental accommodations to support communication in that setting. First of all, picture schedules or visual task lists you might already be using can double as AAC, because they’re a handy way to indicate which activity you want to talk about or begin doing. I use ASL based facial expressions while I point to my cooking task list with my support staff to indicate, okay, shall we do this next? It can be a lot less labor intensive to just point to something right there on the wall than finding the right buttons in my device. Yes, of course it’s good to practice knowing where the buttons are in my device too for situations I’m not standing right next to a certain environmental support, but if multiple button presses can be fatiguing for you it’s more important to have backup options available that will make communication as easy as possible at times you’re too overwhelmed to navigate between folders or spell out a full word. Oh, note that for some of us we’d rather use a visual schedule that incorporates the symbol system we are also using on our devices or communication boards, so if you’re creating new visual supports like picture schedules I recommend using screenshots from your device to help design each item. 

Some other ideas for AAC backups worked into the school environment are, try to get the school to place a giant board on the playground with core and fringe symbols for anyone to use. In the cafeteria, ask kitchen staff to post pictures of each day’s food options somewhere reachable for AAC users to point to their choices. On a more individual basis, you can tape a core word board or letterboard to your desk to use with your assistant or friends who sit nearby. For AAC users who like to handwrite, having a large whiteboard on one wall and getting preferential seating right next to it can be a communication support. If you like to use a laser pointer on a head mount, ask for a large core words board or letterboard to be placed on the wall opposite your desk. And if you struggle with being able to keep your hand raised, you can place a single battery operated button at your desk that plays a recording of the words, “I have something to say”, in order to get the teacher’s attention.

There are also ways to integrate backup AAC methods into a work or volunteer environment. If you have a desk or work station, you can make a flipbook style sign propped up next to you that features rotatable messages displaying your current ability to engage with coworkers, similar to status badges. Another light tech support would be having a “small talk” communication board on the wall near whatever serves as the metaphorical water cooler at your workplace, the spot people tend to stand around and chat. Then there’s the technological end of workplace backups. Many of us who use voice output devices find it difficult to integrate them into slideshow presentations and video chat meetings. Ask for access to slideshow software that automatically generates preprogrammed voice output each time you pull up the corresponding slide, and access to web conferencing programs that allow simultaneous participation via chat box rather than webcam only. These environmental supports only work if you’re actually allowed to use them, so talk to your HR department about appropriate policies that support your inclusion.

Have you ever been in a car or school bus or on a bike when you needed to say something but there was no way to use your primary AAC method? This is common! A lot of people remove their device from their wheelchair mount during transit, or the other passengers can’t hear their voice output over the road noise, or there’s no way for the driver or a fellow bicyclist to read their usual letterboarding, and all sorts of other barriers. Here are a few ideas. If you’re going to be in a back seat of a car or school bus where there will be other passengers who can give their visual attention, use zip ties or velcro to attach a letterboard to the back of the seat in front of you. If you’re usually the driver or a front seat passenger, affix a few different battery operated buttons to the dashboard that play single voice recordings of your choice for important messages like “I need to go to the bathroom now” or “I’m lost”. If you’re bicycling with a friend, place a bell on your bike and pre-establish a system for using it to signal yes and no to your communication partner’s spoken questions, for example one ring for yes and two for no. And for that matter, Morse code could be an option too if you want to get really fancy with the bell.

Okay, those are my ideas for environmental communication supports you could use as backup AAC methods or even one of your primary methods! Do you have ideas I didn’t list here? Please comment below!

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