I have been advocating for a long time now that we, who know better, need to stop using words that suggest we don't when we refer to those people with disabilities among us who do not use speech. Typically I hear words like, 'non-verbal' or 'non-communicative' and phrases like, 'I speak for my son/client because he can't speak for himself.' I shutter when I hear these descriptions of the person in their care. It frustrates me because these self same people know a lot of the communication strategies that this supposedly 'non-verbal, unable to speak for herself' person. They often know:
foods they like and foods they don't
activities they like and activities they don't
how they say no and how they refuse
how they say yes and how they show extreme pleasure
people they prefer and people they don't like
whether the person is happy or sad or scared or angry
And how do they know these things. I'm certain none would claim psychic abilities. If you ask them they would say something like, 'well, s/he lets me know what s/he likes or dislikes.' I'm sure that's absolutely correct.
Which makes them a communicator - plain and simple. Because that's what communication does, transmit information from one person to another. Not only that, it's clear that the communication is really successful because anyone who supports the person can tell you the same things about likes and dislikes, feelings that are expressed.
The term I use, I insist that others use when they are speaking with me about someone they support is: non-traditional communicator. If they are talking about their manner or style of communication I suggest non-traditional communication. I'm not speaking hear about those who use alternative communication - picture boards or other individually designed strategies. I'm speaking of those who fall into that great huge category of 'non-verbals' (God I hate that term).
The story yesterday had a real punch to it. The fellow using his communication board to powerfully ask someone to treat him as an adult. But what really excited me about what I saw was something different. When the receptionist first came to speak with him, he responded with communication, something caught by the woman with him. She saw a particular look on his face, in effect, he 'spoke' in a non-traditional manner. From then, all the communication between him and the woman supporting used communication cues that were NOT on the board but were understood between the two of them. She knew his language, he understood hers. She always spoke to him first and listened to his unspoken answer.
Self advocacy is possible for all people with disabilities. If someone can say, non-traditionally, 'I get angry when you speak to me in that tone,' they are a successful self advocate. If someone can come home from school and report, 'I had fun today' or 'I'm upset by something today,' through non traditional means, they are advocating for themselves. Our job isn't to 'speak for someone who can't speak for themselves' our job is to be 'under the direction of someone who communicates non traditionally.'
The woman in the story never lead, she only followed. She listened, she assisted, she did it without show or fanfare.
I know no one who communicates nothing ... so I don't know a single 'non-verbal' person. Because words aren't, as we all know who's ever lived with someone who slams doors in the kitchen when angry, always spoken.