Saturday, January 20, 2007

Unsaid Words

She sat at the back of the room in Princeton. Next to her was a friend who was able to interpret her meaning through the words that she wrote in a book and the invisible language that they had developed between the two of them. Described, someone might use the term 'non-verbal'. But in real life, in the real world she was able to communicate quite clearly wants and desires, further she was able to communicate deeper aspects of her personality. Everytime she was understood the trill of being 'heard' registered in her body and radiated through her face.

The next day in Oliver a man, a skinny little guy in a track suit with balding gray hair and a manic manner of movement, reacted emotionally to the workshop. Stories of teasing bothered him, descriptions of how people with disability were treated disturbed him. He came up and cried, a little - not as a means of grieving but as a means of saying 'this makes me sad' - then he indicated through rudimentary sign a gesture that this had happened since his childhood. After about 5 minutes I realized I had been deep in conversation with someone 'non-verbal.'

I hate the term 'non-verbal' because it's archaic, meaningless. I have met many who do not speak and none who do not communicate. A woman in an institution guided her staff in the meeting of her needs by the light in her eyes. A man in a group home lets his likes and dislikes, his ups and downs, clearly be known by the movement of his shoulders. A little boy told his mom that he was hurt at school by his behaviour and manner. All of these were 'non-verbal'.

Anyone who works with those who do not speak know that the word 'non-verbal' used to mean 'non-communicative' is just a falsehood. The more you know someone the more you know what makes them happy, what makes them sad, what foods they like, what colours they prefer. It' intellectual laziness to suggest that a human being can be in your company for more than a few hours without 'saying' something. Good heaven's baby's communicate well without a word - but they communicate well because parents really want to listen - really want to watch for meaning - really want to be in relationship with their child.

It scares me when justification for harsh or barbaric treatment is suggested and the explanation is that the person is 'non-verbal.' This is a means of tricking those who don't know people with disabilities and their myriad strategies for communicating into believing that consultation or consideration can't be done with someone 'non-verbal.' It's a lie.

In all the discussion about Ashley's treatment she is only 'non-verbal' - umm that's the first warning signal that something is wrong here. I saw a picture of her. She was smiling. That picture alone said that she could communicate happiness. That picture alone gave the lie to the idea of 'non-verbal' as 'non-communicative.'

Perhaps it would be better if we described Ashley using the word 'victim' to replace the word 'non-verbal' and perhaps we'll understand the situation better.

Anyone who knows someone 'non-verbal' who communicates well, please respond with your story to this blog. Let's make the point that one can only talk if another chooses to listen.


Unknown said...

Every day I teach six students who are all "non-verbal". All day long they tell me that they love me, hate me, they are bored, they like this, they are hungry or they are tired. There is communication all day long. Sometimes I am exhausted when I come home because I have listened to and been involved in so much communication.

Today a new student, six years old, with cerebral palsy sitting in a wheelchair learned about "peer interactions" for the first time. He was playing with a bus on his tray, he pushed it towards the floor, I picked it up, asked him if he wanted it and he waved it away. The little girl sitting in my lap took it and began to push the buttons. Like any typical six year old, he decided he wanted it back and reached for it, she pulled it back and I had to explain to him that since he didn't want it, it was her turn to play and he could have it back when she was done. The corners of his mouth went down and he pouted.

Who can't understand what was said in that conversation?


Anonymous said...

I have a son who is "non-verbal" and people always assume that means he can't communicate and so they don't even make the attempt. He has many, many ways to communicate. I always tell people that he communicates wonderfully for someone with no words. Those who can't communicate with him have just failed to learn how to listen.
It truly bothers me too, that "non-verbal" is constantly being used to deny people rights and to justify horrible treatment. If you don't have a voice that people can easily hear and understand, then somehow you are "less", less important, less worthy, less human.
Both angers and saddens me.

Anonymous said...

I am truly foxed by the notion that anyone could possibly think that another person does not communicate, if they do not relay on speech. This notion suggests merely that the person has not listened.

I have often just been in the presence of someone and really listened, looked at what they were looking at, seen what caused them to turn their head, or raise a smile,turn away, close their eyes. Trying to remember and learn.
It is important not to guess the meaning, and unecessary to guess if you are really listening. These kind of exchanges between two people can sometimes mean far more than a thousand words and more often than not make much more sense than if you tried to attach words to them. one thing I am sure of is that in this way I have been listened to, my sinserity, my attitued, my mood, duly noticed.

In my experience I have found that the need to learn to listen is the thing that is required, not the need to try to encourage people to learn to communicate in ways that are for the benefit of people who can't see that it is their place to listen.

It takes time, attentiveness and willing to listen, and if these can not be afforded, I am sure that no ammount of speculation and on the spot interpretation can take it's place.

Jodi said...

My son was in a general education classroom throughout his elementary school years. The kids were incredible in how they related to him. One day it was my son's turn to be "student of the week". Since the students were learning about what a "fact" was, I brought little slips of paper with "facts" about my son.

Things like his favorite color, favorite flavor of ice cream, etc. The kids were so excited to learn more about my son and especially excited to see how much they had in common with him.

At the end of the time, one of the smart little second graders raised his hand and asked me how I "knew" what my son preferred since he couldn't tell me. I turned the question back around to the kids and asked them how they could know what someone liked if they didn't tell you with words?

They had the coolest answers! Things like: You could hold out four crayons and see which one he picked. Maybe that would tell you his favorite color?

My son is 16 now, but I bet those kids never forgot that day's "lesson".

Penny L. Richards said...

There's an easy four-part strategy to understand our "non-verbal" son (age 11): STOP, LOOK, LISTEN, and GIVE HIM A HAND.

Stop --that means be patient; he might take a while to express himself.

Look --that means that his facial expression and his body posture will tell you a lot, if you really look.

Listen --he doesn't use words, but he vocalizes, and those sounds are full of information: he makes happy sounds, hey-come-here sounds, bored sounds, annoyed sounds, pain sounds, amused sounds, excited sounds... listen!

Give him a hand --at age 8 or 9, he started grabbing our hands to show us things. So, if you give him a hand, you might learn that he wants that toy turned on, or to be put in his favorite chair, or to have his head scratched right there, etc. etc. etc.

When friends and carers learn these four strategies, they find that "non-verbal" definitely doesn't mean he has nothing to say.

lina said...

Non verbal - oh this just means they have learned many other ways to share their message, and often times they are screaming their messages for those of them around who cannot take the time to stop and listen. People have shared their ideas with me through their eyes, through their hands, through gestures, through shoulder shrugs. I do not remember ever meeting anyone who was unable to communicate and don't honestly believe I ever will.
Let's scream out this message with them!

Anonymous said...

I don't think the term "non-verbal" is offensive. It means they don't speak with there mouth. It doesn't mean they are not able to communicate in some way.

Anonymous said...

Dear Dave- I, like your last respondent, have no problem with the term 'non-verbal'. And I know why I don't. The organization that I work for has taught me so much, including there is no such thing as a non communicative person. I work relief for a home with four 'non-verbal' people living there and I'm laughing my head off right now at the thought that they don't communicate! I could list hundreds of ways each one of these delightful people communicate to the people who support them but suffice it to say that when they are happy, content and at peace with their world, they smile. They relax. Yes, it is much harder for someone who doesn't know them very well to know or understand the 'non-verbal' cues and signs for what they want to say but ya can't really know much about anybody until you get to know them. I care very much about these dear ones and I guess the point here is, if you believe someone is worth the effort, you Will take the time and Listen. Frances

Anonymous said...

I work with a wonderful guy - I'll call him J. I work at a Gateway Club in the UK.
We have a somewhat old-fashioned set up - much like a youth club for adults with learning disabilities. Some sports, some table top games, some craft, some watching TV, some computer games. Things that J finds difficult to join in with.
We also have a break for hot and cold drinks and something to nibble on.

J doesn't use words to communicate.
J has 'the shakes'
J got orange squash for his breaktime drink. Probably every week for the last 20 years.

I sat with J. Mainly to help him with his eating, but also because I really like the guy. His smile is amazing and warms my heart.
J looked at his squash, then looked at the other people with their cups of tea.
The look on his face told me that he thinks his orange juice is a bit 'crap'.
The look on his face told me that he wants some of what the other people are having.

I grabbed a mug of coffee and a cup of tea. I made them both extra milky to cool them down. J chose by smelling, then grabbing.
J chose the coffee.
The look on his face was great. The biggest smile I have ever seen.
He looked proud - now he's getting a bit of what the other people get. Respect and choice.

Don't ask me to tell you what he's saying when he looks at the lingerie section of the latest clothing catalogue ;o) It would make me blush

Anonymous said...

Ptinceton, BC & the lady in the back. I'm her father. I missed your presentation due to illness. I liked your clear & succinct "unsaid Words"
This particular young lady is a pioneer in the area of "non Verbal" She has appeared on National, Provincial & municipal TV as an example of a "non verbal person struggling to communicate. She was the first "non verbal" person to use Bliss Symbolics in this country, the first therefore to use a voice synthasizer & use a variety of signing techniques to communicate. She reads & writes at the grade 3 level which she uses if all else fails, her computor at home & simply makes you understand otherwise. Otherwise includes such things as one handed signing, AMIRIND, Bliss & personal sigining. In short, I guatantee that twenty miniutes in a one on one situation she will communicate & make you understand. She will not allow you to leave untill you
understand. Her intellectual assesement is 8 to 11 years of age. Given her multiple handicaps she is and remains a positive & happy person. I truly wish I had her strength. Truly appreciated your article on this issue - it demonstrated a real incite. Should you seek or require any info in this regard I have 32 years experience

ballastexistenz said...

I did a video called In My Language that I posted to another post as well. I can write, but it's my "first language" that people rarely recognize as having any meaning at all, when it's more meaningful to me than writing ever could be.

ballastexistenz said...

Oh, and I'm not all that fond of "non-verbal" as a word, although I accidentally slip and use it sometimes.

Anonymous said...

I have often just been in the presence of someone and really listened, looked at what they were looking at, seen what caused them to turn their head, or raise a smile,turn away, close their eyes. Trying to remember and learn.
It is important not to guess the meaning, and unecessary to guess if you are really listening.

I think I must by hyper-verbal, then. I have almost no ability to do what is described above. I'd rather use text as my only means of communication than have no words at all.

The only exception is being in direct physical contact with someone, and even then, all I can pick up is what's relevant to that physical contact.