Equal Voices For All, AAC Users Included
In Disney's adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's, "The Little Mermaid," the mermaid Ariel loses her voice. The sea witch, Ursula, magically captures Ariel's voice and wears it as a glowing amulet. Ariel's voice, entrapped within a gemstone, symbolizes power. We use "voice" metaphorically in conversation. When we "give voice to a cause," we understand that a cause has representation. By extension, taking someone's voice from them is a way of exerting power or dominance. Even a "gag order" issued by the court strips voice - the right to speak about a specific situation. The loss of voice is significant. "Finding your voice" means recognizing who you are - your authentic self.
In the movie, Ariel attempts to show the prince who she is through her actions, her lively facial expressions, and her body language. We see her frustrated when the prince is unable to recognize that he has met her before. She cannot tell him that she loves him. Since the prince heard her singing before she traded her voice to become human, he is mistakenly convinced that he must hear "that voice" again to find his true love.
How is your sense of self and self-esteem affected when you are not heard? What do you do when you are ignored? Talk louder or stop talking at all? Responses to challenging situations are separated into internalizing and externalizing. A person who internalizes feelings of inadequacy may withdraw, becoming silent and passive. A person who externalizes may "act out" through angry words, even appearing aggressive.
If you are self-aware, strong and supported, you may be brave enough to leave the situation - find new friends, join a different group, change your immediate environment, change your employment, etc. If you are unable to leave, you may undergo an internal change, possibly reducing your belief in your ability to participate, and perhaps developing a mild form of habituated passivity or learned helplessness.
Children who use Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) typically do not have access to spoken language as a viable means of communication. They may use a wheelchair and have motoric challenges. How can they change the situation quickly and easily? What is their locus of control? How do you find new friends, or change your surroundings when you are dependent on adults for both your access to expressive language and physical movement?
AAC is about control. Being heard is about control. Having a voice (organic, digital, synthesized, symbol set, or otherwise) is about agency - being an agent, the person who is performing the action; doing something, as opposed to being a recipient, the receiver of an action performed by another.
Perhaps children who demonstrate "negative" behaviors have limited control in the events in their lives. They may find opportunities to prove that they are agents. Non-compliance in any form is powerful. Think about the children who are attempting to tell you that they want to participate and are limited in their options to advocate for themselves. Remember the children who appear passive. Children who are ignored while activity exists all around them are excluded and may have no way to participate.
The majority of us use verbal speech to do more than communicate our basic wants and needs. We don't usually proclaim for all to hear, "I have to go to the bathroom" or "I'm hungry," except perhaps with our near and dear. We use our voice to communicate creative, unique (and frequently redundant) thoughts, feelings and ideas. We know that for individuals who use AAC there is much more than announcing our most basic needs.
We want children to be agents. We want them to have a voice. Having a voice allows a person to exert influence in a given situation. We are adamant about access to communication, not solely because access allows for a new modality for interacting with others, but because communication itself is a form of power. We are adamant, resolute, and perhaps even annoyingly insistent that there is equal distribution of power - that we all have a voice.
Teresa Roberts, MS, CCC-SLP, is a school-based speech-language pathologist and clinical mentor. She is a member of Portland LanguageLab, a collaborative think tank dedicated to creating innovative materials for special education, advocating for neurodiverse populations, and giving every child equal access to fun.