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Start with a smile and say hello: Conversation tips for assistive technology
April 16, 2018
Start with a smile and say hello: Conversation tips for assistive technology

    Technology is in every hand, every car, every home. We don’t think twice when we see others pull out a cell phone, drive a Segway or type on a laptop. We may hesitate, though, when we see someone driving a power wheelchair in the park or ordering a Big Mac at McDonald’s using a communication device. Though these devices have much of the same technology we are familiar with, we may struggle with knowing what to do or how to interact with someone who is using them for communication or mobility.

    Our assistive technology team has made it a top priority to educate families and community partners in the benefits of assistive technology. In the Q&A below, Barbara Lent, speech-language pathologist and manager of our assistive technology and Brook Road therapy teams, responds to some of the questions she’s often asked about this specialized communication equipment and how different (or similar) the conversation process may be when using it.


    What is assistive technology (AT) and augmentative and alternative communication (AAC)?

    The United States Assistive Technology Act of 1998 defines AT as “any product, device or equipment, whether acquired commercially, modified or customized, that is used to maintain, increase or improve the functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.” This technology can run the gamut from touchscreen computers and screen magnifiers to power wheelchairs, communication devices controlled by eye or head movement and much, much more.

    AAC may or may not involve technology, and is described as a set of tools and strategies that an individual uses to solve everyday communicative challenges. These may supplement existing speech or replace speech that is not functional. AAC may involve no tech (gestures), low tech (picture board) or high tech (synthesized speech on a device) options or a combination of all three.

    Who uses AT and AAC?

    Lots of people. Adults and children who may have medical, physical or cognitive challenges that require technology to increase independence often utilize AT and AAC. They may use this technology to have a conversation with someone, to move from one place to another or to organize their day. The applications of AT and AAC are endless and this technology makes an enormous difference in the lives of those who use it.

    What can I do if I meet someone who uses AT or AAC?

    First and most importantly, remember the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would like to be treated. This applies to children as well as adults! Individuals with communication or mobility challenges want to interact just as much as you or I do. While the process may be a little different, it also may be more alike than you realize.

    • Smile. Say hello. If the situation calls for it, start a conversation.
    • Speak directly to the person, not to their companion or their wheelchair. If they’re using a communication aide, don’t look over their shoulder as they type or point.
    • Speak at your normal pace, volume and tone of voice. Don’t assume that the person can’t hear or understand you.
    • If the person uses pictures, a keyboard or something in addition to their voice to communicate, give them a chance to respond to you. Extra time may be all that person needs to be able to chat with you. Ask the person to show you how they communicate.
    • Take turns in the conversation. Don’t feel like you need to do all the talking. Wait to give them a chance to respond.
    • If you don’t understand what someone is saying, don’t pretend that you do. Let them know what part you didn’t understand. Ask for clues. If you still can’t understand, don’t worry about it, just tell the person you’re sorry and will try again later.
    • If the person uses a wheelchair, respect personal space. Don’t touch the chair or try to assist without asking first.
    • Talk about something other than the wheelchair. Though you may find it fascinating, the person using it probably thinks of it as just a way to get from one place to another. Don’t offer driving tips or comment on their speed or method of driving. No one likes a backseat driver!

    Above all, when you encounter someone who is using technology for communication or mobility, don’t avoid the person or the chance to get to know them better. Just relax, smile and say hello. Get to know them a bit. Don’t be too concerned that you will say or do something wrong. Just treat them as you would like to be treated and enjoy the chance to meet someone new!

    By Barbara Lent, speech-language pathologist and manager, assistive technology and Brook Road Therapy teams

    Our assistive technology team created Recipes for Success, a program that provides caregiver training in practical, everyday activities that reinforce the use of technology. Individuals using AT and AAC can only be successful with the support of the people they interact with every day – at home, at school, at work and in the community at large – and it is a top priority of our team to educate families and community partners about this technology.

    Communicating with a person who uses AAC. Augmentative Communication Community Partnerships Canada, 2008
    Etiquette for communicating with a person who uses AAC. Augmentative Communication Community Partnerships Canada, 2010.
    Kassenbrock,R. 4 Things not to do when interacting with someone who uses a communication device. The Mighty, 2015.
    Corbitt, A. Wheelchair etiquette in 8 easy steps.

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