What is assistive technology?

Assistive technology is any kind of technology and/or tool that can be used to enhance the functional independence of a person with a disability. Often, for people with disabilities, accomplishing daily tasks such as communicating with others, going to school or work, or participating in activities can be a challenge. Assistive Technology (AT) devices are tools to help overcome those challenges and enable people living with disabilities to enhance and have access to a quality of life, that may otherwise not be known, and lead more independent lives.

The mission of this blog is to serve as a voice of a constant researcher in the field of educational and assistive technologies so that the best products, strategies and services may be located easily, in hopes that they will then be delivered, taught and used to better the lives of people with disabilities.


Personal Communication Dictionary

Interpreting communication of individuals with complex communication needs (CCN) can be very challenging. You will find that students with multiple disabilities have their own unique ways of communicating with the world. Our challenge is to interpret their communication attempts and then to encourage more communication that is full of intent and purpose.

Most of our students with severe communication challenges have their needs met. Often there are few opportunities for communication interactions; their lives are based on routines, i.e. a bathroom schedule, an eating schedule, a TV watching time, etc. therefore their opportunities to exert control have been significantly limited.  What then may follow are inappropriate behaviors that are developed or their own unique ways of communicating may begin to take place.

A personal communication or gesture dictionary is a document, a communication profile, which helps to outline the ways in which an individual communicates. A communication profile is most useful for new or casual support staff that quickly needs to know about the ways that an individual communicates. It is also a wonderful tool to pass on with a student whenever they are moving from one support staff to another.
If a student is communicating, if it works, let's use it! Encouraging and accepting all modes of communication (i.e. verbalizations, gestures, pointing, symbols) is part of providing a multi-modality approach to communication, but documenting these communication approaches will allow everyone to understand and be on the same page.

A communication dictionary is a form with information about a person’s communication needs, skills and abilities. It is designed to be a ‘quick glance’ guide that documents what the individual understands and the ways in which he or she communicates. A personal communication dictionary is more useful for partners who are unfamiliar with the ways that a person communicates.

It should contain information about unique or idiosyncratic communication behaviors. It provides information about what the person does, what this means and what the other person should do in response to the communication behavior seen. A gesture dictionary should be part of the dictionary, which includes the signs and gestures that people understand or also use. For those with complex communication needs it is important that those in their life recognize and understand their communication behaviors.

We need to remember: Communication is power! It's about having control over your environment. Crying, kicking, biting can get control but is it the method we want them to use to communication? Does it work? It depends on how we react to it. 

We may want to start with a communication profile that will tell us about this unique individual. A communication dictionary can help to ensure that everyone on the team is aware of the student's communication behaviors and how to respond accurately. It also enables the team to respond in a way that is predictably familiar to that particular individual. This way their communication method, or behavior, is understood and responded to appropriately by the whole team. 

A Personal Dictionary is a composite of the intent, what they are attempting to communicate, and the behavior they use to attempt this communication. Integrating the use of a personal dictionary as a reference guide can be very helpful. To develop a personal dictionary it is important that you get input from all the people who know the individual best.

Remember, behavior is also a form of communication. Individuals who have CCN use whatever method is available to them to communicate. And, if it works, they will use the same method over and over again. We are the ones who support the use of the communication strategy used. 
Start with a Communication Intent Log, using 3 columns:
  1. Behaviors Observed
  2. Intent - What it means
  3. How to Respond 
You may also want to add a column about: Is the behavior appropriate? If it is, just note the behavior. If it would be better to communicate in another way, how to respond might be to model a better way to communicate, specifying what that would be.

Your understanding and awareness of the individual and how they may be communicating will increase your observational skills and assist you in completing the Personal Dictionary. You will probably pick up on things you had not noticed before. Talk to others, had they noticed these behaviors and what do they think they mean?  

When keeping your logs, consider: Many individuals add meaning to what they are saying by using facial expressions (such as smiling or raising their eyebrows) and gestures (such as lifting a hand or dropping their head). For those who find speech difficult or have limited or no speech, facial expression and gestures can be a very important.

On the other hand, someone with physical impairments may find facial expression and gestures very difficult to make and may have their own unique ways to express themselves, such as looking down may mean no or a whole body excitement may mean yes. It is our job to take the time to find out what their preferred method is and that it is their consistent way of communicating this in all environments.

Once you have put all of this work into developing this insightful log, share it! A copy should be given to the parents and/or care providers, the Regional Center, their work environment, day care/respite care and in their confidential file. Hand a copy to the next teacher and discuss it with them. Not only will this be good for this individual but a great model for them to use with others. Everyone has the right to communicate; sometimes they just need a little help with interpreting how they communicate. 

The next step, begin introducing icons, simple signs... a more universal strategy for communication.