Augmentative or Alternative Communication Acceptance Month

By Caroline Schumacher

Augmentative or Alternative Communication (AAC) devices help people with limited vocal abilities express themselves. From hightech to lowtech AAC, over 2 million people are estimated to use these methods of communication. This month we can raise awareness and celebrate all the different people who communicate with AAC systems. 

October is AAC Acceptance Month. Augmentative or Alternative Communication (AAC) technology helps people with disabilities that affect spoken language or vocalizations communicate. From single meaning pictures laminated over cardboard, to speech-generating devices controlled by eye-gaze, there is a large range from lowtech to hightech AAC. These forms of communication can supplement or replace speech. Common forms of AAC include PECS cards, text-to-speech apps, or symbol-supported communication apps (such as Quolopro). AAC Acceptance Month is a reminder to celebrate and support people who use AAC, as well as expand awareness and model allyship to the greater community. Additionally, AAC Acceptance Month is a reminder of how to fully support and encourage Kadiant clients who use AAC devices.  

This month celebrates the diverse methods of communication, and the importance of normalizing them into society. Making sure to create space in conversation is a great way to be an ally to those who use AAC. Navigating through AAC and expressing a thought or idea can often take longer than vocal speech, so be sure to allow time in a conversation for folks who use AAC to fully contribute to a conversation. If the person is using an AAC device with a screen, it’s good practice to not look over their shoulder or try and finish their sentence while they’re building phrases. Some AAC programs are used on personal devices or computers, and it’s important to respect the individual’s privacy and autonomy. Don’t remove a person’s AAC device without getting consent, or providing a sufficient alternate form of communication. This is their means of communicating—and removing their AAC is essentially silencing them.  When working with someone who uses AAC, like in the context of ABA, sometimes a device may need editing or altering. Ask the client before doing this, or narrate what is being changed, for example, “It looks like you don’t have any pretzels available, I’m going to switch the button to crackers today.” Most importantly, talk to people who use AAC like you would anyone else—with a normal voice, include conversation turns, and look at the individual, not the AAC. If you have trouble understanding someone, ask for clarification. 

As expansive as AAC technology can be, many of the programs come up short for representing the diverse population of AAC users. Most AAC programs lack capabilities of dialect, pronunciation or additional vocabulary that are representative of the diverse population that uses AAC. In addition, most picture icons default to depicting white people. Most representation of BIPOC icons require additional professional customization. Another issue is that many of the voice-generating AAC offer a narrow choice of voices to choose from—man, woman, or child. This severely limits representation for not just LGTBQIA+ people, but anyone whose identity may fall outside of the “generic” voice offered by AAC technology.  

Fortunately, this is slowly changing. Organizations such as American Speech-Language-Hearing Association and International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication are working towards diversity and inclusion within AAC use and development. Recently, a new technology called VOCALiD was released that synthesizes a human voice with an AAC voice. This technology offers a wider choice of voices and a more diverse representation for people who use voice-generating AAC devices. Anyone can “donate their voice” to the VOCALiD voicebank through their website. What a perfect way to celebrate AAC Acceptance Month! 

 AAC  Best Practices & Etiquette: 

  • Allow extra time for a conversational turn or reply, as constructing words or phrases usually takes longer with AAC.  
  • Don’t look over someone’s shoulder at their AAC device. Use eye contact like you would in any other conversation. 
  • Ask permission before editing or changing the layout of a person’s AAC device. 
  • Taking someone’s AAC device is removing their voice! Always ask permission, and make sure another form of communication is available. 
  • The population of those who use AAC is not a monolith—these are guidelines but not rules. Individuals may have different communication preferences.