Well, with all the buzzing going on around more noisome news, I was certainly glad to find something sweet during a recent forage of my news source trapline*. It’s a new-ish piece of Assistive Technology (AT) for communication! But this post isn’t just about a nifty little mechanism (which I’ll get to in a minute); it’s about the social stuff around using ATs to communicate.
A variety of disability bloggers have discussed different electronic mechanisms they use for communicating with others**. There are a number of hurdles faced by users of augmentative communication (aug-comm), and unfortunately they are often greater in number than other kinds of AT. With any tech, there’s always the issues of finding out about it, trying it out, affording it, the learning curve, dealing with maintenance issues, upgrading to newer models when something gets too worn out or is simply too archaic for customer support or technical compatibility, working it in with other hardware in your life (“It’s a great piece of equipment, but my chair doesn’t come with a trailer so I can’t simply schlep it everywhere”) and other annoyances (“How is anyone s’posed to type on these tiny buttons?”).
But communication AT has its own strange set of social-disability type hurdles. Our culture so inextricably links communication with speaking that we run into a great amount of resistance and outright denial that communication can even happen without speech. Oralism reigned supreme in the world of Deaf and hearing-impaired education (and frequently still does). People also assume that others who can hear adequately should also be able to speak. They often assume that someone with an inability to speak easily, fluently and/or regularly must have a severe cognitive impairment. (Cue old rant about “deaf and dumb” where dumb = supposedly mute and stupid.) They often associate “not being able to say something” with “not having anything to say”. Even perfectly verbal wheelchair users find that the presence of the chair sometimes demotes them to the social realm of non-persons, where waiters, store employees or service workers will ignore them and/or attempt to route all the conversation through anyone else nearby. Joel Smith does a good job of describing how some parents react to giving their children AT as “giving up” because struggling to be normal is deemed so much more important than making your thoughts known. (And then people wonder why kids have meltdowns!)
But folks do need to communicate, and people employ a wide range of means: sign, TDD (TTY / textphone), mobile phone texting, Instant Messaging (IM), voice synthesizers, e-mail, writing, picture boards … But whatever means one uses, the other person must also be willing (and able) to work with the medium. And there’s the crux of the issue. The AT we use must not only be useful to us physio-mechanically and succeed with regards to the signal-over-noise ratio, it must also work with our psychosocial needs and the greater cultural needs.
Before the days of readily-available e-mail, we had a TDD at home for when my hard-of-hearing hubby wanted to call deaf / HoH friends, or needed to make more complex phone calls to companies for technical information related to his computer work. Nowadays my hubby has a Blackberry for texting and emailing, as well as a mobile phone that can send the incoming signal directly to his hearing aids. (He sometimes uses a hands-free lavalier mike when talking on the phone this way, which because no one else can hear the incoming signal, makes him look like he’s standing there talking to the voices in his head.) These newer things are fabulous sorts of ATs because they involve tech that everyone else is using as well, so it’s socially “natural”.
You might naturally conclude that someone with normal hearing (or even hyperacute hearing) would have no need of communication AT. But with my auditory processing issues, I sometimes have difficulty with phone conversations, especially when talking to people with whom I am not familiar, or if we’re discussing topics and names that are new to me. Additionally, I once had a student who used a Dynavox (or Lightwriter or another similar type-to-speech synthesizer), and because I found the electronic voice difficult to understand ended up having to read his text window more than listening to it. This proved to be an awkward situation, as he found it hard to converse with someone who kept wanting to look over his shoulder.
Furthermore, when I’m really tired, my clarity of speech drops, and some days I just have sporadic bouts of stuttering. When I focus on the enunciation, it slows me down and reduces my ability to do all the recall and planning of what I’m saying. The motor planning of speech detracts from my cognitive planning of speech, and normally my ADHD brain wants to be two paragraphs ahead of where my mouth is. If I am focused on things going on around me and trying to “wing it” with regards to talking, then things don’t always come out phrased clearly. I drop words, get phrases out of order, forget names or pull a previous (irrelevant) name from my “word buffer”. I got about four hours of sleep last night due to health issues, and by this afternoon I was running into such speech-production issues at least twice an hour (although due to the sleep deprivation, my brain was in no way racing anywhere).
In other words, I don’t come off as sounding very intelligent. And although I’m generally a highly verbal sort of person, I still find that I frequently have trouble discussing issues outside of my usual realm of chatter. There have been times when hubby and I have taken our laptops to a local coffeehouse to enjoy a cuppa and discuss household issues via Instant Messaging. Being able to read and type my responses gives me the opportunity to review what’s been said and think about what I’m trying to express without the verbalising getting in the way. He in turn not only gets the conversation captioned, but also gets the face contact that is so important to him.
Which (yes, finally) gets us to this spiffy AT. The UbiDuo is a pair of unfolding keyboards plus text screens, which two people can use to wirelessly text conversations with each other in a face to face setting. The article refers to deaf people who use it to communicate with hearing people, including extended family members, co-workers, clients and others. This is not only helpful for reducing the wait and expense of scheduling and hiring interpreters, but also improves family and personal life. Of course, the device won’t replace interpreters completely, because it’s limited to two to four users.
I suspect that twenty years ago this device would not have been as well-received with the general public as it is now in the 21st century. Nowadays a far greater percentage of the general population is used to texting information through e-mail, IM or mobile phones. The UbiDuo has the benefits of being socially natural and enabling more direct face contact and interpersonal communication. We can only hope that other forms of aug-comm are better received as the general public becomes more exposed to them. Of course, this means that we must continue to provide that exposure, and to advocate for others to have access!
- The article about the UbiDuo.
- Amanda at Ballastexistenz blog has an impressive listing of articles by and about autistic aug-comm users.
- Tees, mug et cetera on this self-advocacy theme of “Not being able to speak is not the same as not having anything to say.”
* “traplining” is when bees make regular tours of known nectar sources by visiting them at particular times of day — sometimes I think that honeybees are better at remembering things on their To Do lists than I am …
** Sorry, I’m tired and can’t remember who-said-what-where. Feel free to comment with a link to one of your blog posts!