'Communication is Everyone's Right'

This week - 22-28 of August 2021- was Speech Pathology Week. The theme was 'Communication is everyone's right'. We ask that you think about what this basic human right means for individuals living with a communication disability.

For people living without communication disability, being able to communicate our basic needs and wants is something that many of us take for granted. On a daily basis, we use communication for simple pleasures such as ordering a coffee, making exaggerated faces at our babies, listening intently to a favourite song, gesturing with a big wave 'hello,' or rudely sharing our disgust at someone's behaviour with 'the bird'. In whatever way you are communicating, it is likely that you are doing it automatically, with no thought about how it happens.

When we use our voice, there are 4 processes which occur. Firstly, our lungs provide us with the 'power' through air. This flows up through the vocal cords which vibrate to create noise. The air then flows up through our throat, nose and mouth creating resonance (everyone’s resonance is different; mine is a very typical 'Bogan' nasal-sounding voice). Lastly, as the air comes through our mouth, we use our lips, tongue and teeth to create individual sounds. I bet you have never sat down and thought about how much of our body is used to make something as effortless as voice.

For the 1.2 million Australians living with a communication disability, this is not the case. Being able to ask for food or water might require a lot of conscience effort, time and skill. As Speech Pathologists, we work with many of these Australians to overcome the barriers they face to communicate needs and wants. We can help improve a person’s ability to read, write, speak or listen.

We might implement an appropriate alternative to using voice, such as a tablet device with picture symbols, or a speech-generated device (SGD) such as that used by Stephen Hawking. Initially, Mr Hawking used a hand-held switch to select words which were produced by a synthetic voice and eventually had to use his cheek. SGD's work by displaying various words or symbols in front of someone on an electronic device. They can select these as a scanner moves across the image. Many years ago, the only option for voice output was a synthetic voice that sounded very robotic. Nowadays, as technology evolves, we are able to use someone's real voice before it deteriorates too much, or a more natural-sounding voice. This has made a huge impact on the way people with a communication disability maintain their identity.

Last year during a motor-neuron disease workshop I listened the story of a lady who had an SGD with her pre-recorded voice. For this woman, being able to use her own voice to call for her dog was so powerful and gave her such happiness. Without the technology to use her own pre-recorded voice, her dog would not have recognised her.

It is stories like this and the individuals behind them that gives me purpose as a speech pathologist. Going to work does not feel like a job, but rather an opportunity. An opportunity to help others to have a voice. At Hastings Macleay Speech Pathology, our therapists work with children and adults with communication disability. Our adult therapists have a special interest in working with people who have Parkinson's disease and in the Hastings-Macleay region, it is estimated that there are between 600 and 1000 people with Parkinson's disease. With the programs that we offer for voice treatment, we see very positive outcomes for voice.

There are so many ways we can support people with a communication disability. We must try harder. The following are some ways in which you can support someone:

  • Allow extra time for the person to finish getting their message across. As helpful as you may feel, it can be disempowering for people with communication disability to have their message interrupted by a person trying to finish or guess the sentence.

  • Body language is key. Face the person so you can see their facial expressions and gestures.

  • Take some time to understand the person. Every person will have a different way of wanting their message heard. Chat directly with them about what they want you to do.

  • If they get stuck with their message offer assistance by making suggestions/giving choices.

  • Use visual helpers. Just as you wave goodbye or hello, you can add more than just speech to your language. You can use gestures, pictures and text to add to your message.

So as Speech Pathology Week 2021 comes to a close, make an effort to listen to others and allow others to be heard. Think about how someone with a communication disability might not be able to hum their favourite song, tell their wife they love them or flip 'the bird.' Everyone deserves the right to express themselves. For some people this is harder to do, so please be patient and considerate.

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