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Communication is a basic human right: Speech Pathology Australia

Photo: Communication is a basic human right
By Gaenor Dixon, President, Speech Pathology Australia

Communication is an essential part of what it is to be human and without it, our quality of life is greatly diminished. Being able to communicate successfully is critical for our dignity, our happiness, and our development.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 19) protects our right to “freedom of opinion and expression” and “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas”, but we can’t exercise this right if we can’t communicate.

We tend to take communication for granted until we lose it.

If this right is taken from people forcibly, for example through the actions of a government or other form of authority, community outrage will be swift and loud. If that right is denied due to an illness, injury or other disorder, it often goes unnoticed even though 1 in 7 of us will struggle with a communication disorder at some stage in our lives.
This is one of the reasons the theme for this year’s Speech Pathology Week is “Communication access is communication for all”. It is not just those with communication disabilities who are excluded, but also the people they are trying to communicate with. They will miss out on interactions with loved ones, business contacts and other interesting people. After all, communication is a two way process.

Speech Pathology Australia is advocating for the introduction of standards which, when implemented across our community, facilitate successful communication for any individual, experiencing any type of communication difficulty. Our end goal is to see such standards incorporated into legislation, for example in building standards, much like the International Symbol of Access (wheelchair symbol) has been for physical access.

Groups such as Scope’s Communication Inclusion and Resource Centre (CIRC) in partnership with the Communication Access Network (CAN) in Victoria have started working on an assessment system in which businesses and organisations can be audited and potentially obtain the Communication Access Symbol, identifying it as a place that is welcoming and friendly towards people with communication difficulties and where staff have the skills and resources to support successful communication.

More and more organisations are wanting to address aspects of their disability access plans that deal with inclusion and the rights of people with communication difficulties. These include the public transport sector such as V-Line (regional rail), Public Transport Victoria, the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission and Victoria Police. Over 150 Victorian businesses and other organisations are now registered as communication accessible.

An important feature of the communication access initiative is the central involvement of people with complex communication needs. The initiative provides employment for people with communication difficulties and builds leadership opportunities. It will also have the additional benefit of making communication more accessible for people with low literacy and those who aren’t familiar with the English language.

So this is our long-term goal. But what can we, as a community, do in the meantime to ensure that people with communication disabilities are not excluded?

Imagine ordering a cup of coffee. A common practice, usually filled with anticipation, not dread. Part of the coffee lover’s joy comes from the variety – of beans, styles of preparation, milks, sugars, size and even drinking vessels. But what happens if you can’t get the words out. You get stuck on a word and start to stutter. The barista looks nonplussed; you feel the queue behind you getting longer; other customers are getting impatient and you hear a theatrical sigh. A well-meaning bystander jumps in and predicts your order, wrongly, but you nod in agreement just to get this over and you finally walk out with a coffee but not at all the one you wanted. Perhaps not the end of the world. But now imagine if that happens on a regular basis and not just when you are on your own and not just when you order coffee, but perhaps on a first date, or with a business associate you need to impress, or when you are trying to shop or do your banking.

You probably start avoiding those situations, either by retreating from face to face interactions, or by abandoning the activities altogether. And so your world closes in.

This scenario is not just confined to people who stutter, of course. Communication disorders take many forms: for example aphasia after a stroke; speech sound disorder; developmental disorders that interfere with expression or comprehension; dementia; hearing loss, especially in later life; and those with developmental language disorder.

We value speech so highly that we tend to disregard those who struggle with it, and we often conclude that communication and intellect are one and the same. This is ironic when you consider how much we all rely on non-verbal aspects of communication and the colour it brings to our everyday interactions.

Augmentative and alternative communication, or AAC, is a term speech pathologists use to refer to any type of communication strategy for people with a range of conditions who have significant difficulties speaking. There are two main types of AAC – aided AAC and unaided AAC. Aided AAC is any external item used to aid communication (eg object symbols, communication boards, books, key-ring mini-cards, wallets, speech generating devices, computers, mobile phones, tablets).

Unaided AAC refers to communication techniques that do not require the use of an external aid. That is, the person uses whatever is available to them, generally their own body. Examples of unaided AAC include using eye contact, facial expression, body language, gestures and manual signs.

Everyone augments their communication to some extent and if we simply become more aware of extending our skill in this form of communication, we can each be more inclusive as a small step towards communication accessibility for all.

Other general tips for communicating with people with a communication disorder include:
  • Always treat the person with the communication disability with dignity and respect
  • Be welcoming and friendly
  • Understand there are many ways to communicate
  • Ask the person with the disability what will help with communication
  • Avoid loud locations, find a quiet place
  • Listen carefully
  • When you don’t understand, let them know you are having difficulty understanding
  • If you think the person has not understood, repeat what you have said or say it a different way
  • Try asking the person yes or no questions if you are having difficulty understanding them
  • Ask the person to repeat or try another approach if you don’t understand
  • To make sure you are understood, check with the person that you have understood them correctly
  • If you ask a question, wait for the person to reply
  • Allow the person time to respond, so always be patient
  • Speak directly to the person and make eye contact. (Though be mindful that there are some people who may not want you to look at them, eg some people with autism spectrum disorder)
  • Speak normally. There is no need for you to raise your voice or slow your speech
  • Relax. Everyone makes mistakes; apologise if you believe you have embarrassed someone.

We all have a responsibility to bring about, and we will all benefit from, improvements to the way we communicate. It needs to be done at a personal level, a community level, and a global level. There’s no question: communication access is communication for all.

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