Improving the Lives of People with Communication Disabilities

By | March 18, 2014

Communication is essential to everyday life. Most of us communicate on autopilot – not consciously aware of all that goes into our daily communications. We talk and gesture, we use body language and facial expressions, we change our tone and pitch of voice. As we go about our day we utilize verbal and written skills, and we use pictures, symbols, and images to enhance our communication. We listen to others, trying our best to comprehend and truly understand what is being said. We use our communication skills on the telephone, by way of our keyboard, in meetings, on a one-to-one basis, at work, at school, during hobbies, with friends, families, strangers, co-workers, and even in conversations with ourselves. For close to half a million Canadians, communication is not on auto-pilot, it is a daily struggle to be heard, to be understood, to be taken seriously, to connect, and to be treated with respect. People with communications disabilities (also known as speech and language disabilities) struggle to have the broader population work with their alternative forms of communication, ensuring that they, too, are able to go about their daily lives.

A communication disability is an impairment that affects one’s ability to communicate. This may include the inability to talk, to articulate their words, or to receive, process, and/or comprehend concepts. Communication disabilities can be from birth or acquired later in life. Communications disabilities can be a result of ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), cerebral palsy, autism, traumatic brain injury, stroke, side-effects of medication, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s Disease, dementia, cognitive disabilities, tumors, and aging.  Communication disabilities range in severity from person to person.

People with communication disabilities still communicate but they may use alternative formats, such as: letter boards, speech generating devices, a communication board or book (which usually has symbols and/or pictures), gestures and/or a communication assistant.

When there are discussions regarding accessibility, there is often a lack of conversation regarding communication disabilities. This needs to change. There are far too many instances where people with communication disabilities are being adversely affected by people’s inability, unwillingness, and/or disinterest, in communicating with someone who relies on alternative formats. This is a serious matter that greatly impacts a person’s overall quality of life. The loss of one’s ability to communicate can happen to any one of us, at any time; and most likely will happen to us as we age.

The inaccessibility of daily life for people with communication disabilities is widespread. The inaccessibility is experienced across service lines, whether it be governmental services, financial services, healthcare, emergency services, retail, employment, voting, legal services, justice services and/or police services. The inaccessibility of services is not a minor inconvenience but rather an extremely serious and important issue that needs to be addressed. The current inability of the system or services to properly interact with people with communication disabilities is leading to instances that put people with communication disabilities in dangerous situations. In several instances, across Canada, people with communication disabilities have been thrown in the drunk tank by police who didn’t understand that the person was not intoxicated but rather had a disability.  There are sometimes mental health issues, such as depression, associated with communication disabilities as people with communication disabilities are often socially isolated. There is an increased risk of abuse, as they may not be able to report incidents, or notify people of what is happening to them, or they may not be taken seriously. There have been several cases where people with communication disabilities have been told by police and justice professionals that they could not bring charges against those abusing them because they wouldn’t “make a credible witness”. There are high rates of unemployment and poverty amongst people with communication disabilities because workplaces are not open to alternative formats of communication.

Many people assume that those with communication disabilities are incapable of understanding what is being said but that is not always the case. We, as a society, have to work to ensure we don’t discriminate against people with communication disabilities. Interacting with a person with a communication disability does take more time, energy, and patience, but they, like those without communication disabilities, deserve to have an opportunity to interact, and to speak for themselves. There are ways to improve communication, such as: talking directly to the person, not assuming the person with them speaks for them, ask if there is anything that can be done to improve the interaction, be patient, don’t assume they don’t know what you are saying, don’t underestimate the person’s abilities, tell the person if you don’t understand, ask them to repeat what they are communicating, use everyday language, speak clearly, don’t yell, be prepared to communicate through gestures, pointing, pictures, or other alternative formats.

We all have a role in improving the lives of those with communication disabilities. Advocates can work together to ensure that those with communication disabilities are part of the conversation regarding accessibility issues. Service providers can make services accessible by ensuring that they are prepared to interact with people with communication disabilities. Individuals can work to ensure they don’t turn away from interacting with someone who relies on an alternative format of communication. Individuals can also work to ensure they don’t assume things about a person based on their ability to speak in conventional or non-conventional formats; and they can work to be patient, respectful, and communicate in a way in which they, themselves, would like to have others communicate with them. Together we can work to improve the lives of those with communication disabilities.

If you would like more information on how you can improve access to people with communication disabilities visit the website of Communication Access Now, a national campaign to promote accessibility for people who have speech and language disabilities.