Thursday, January 23, 2014

Non Traditional Doesn't Mean Unimportant

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.

That's awesome.

That's respectful.

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.

That's awesome.

That's respectful.

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.


Susan said...

Well said!

Tamara said...

I'm a little surprised, but I don't agree with you this time. I use the term "nonverbal" a lot. For years, most of the meetings I have attended have been on the phone with people in another city. I miss a lot of nonverbal cues in those meetings. Once in awhile I have to ask someone who was in a meeting if I missed something nonverbal because of the way a conversation went.

I used the term before that and not in relationship to people with disabilities. We all use nonverbal communications constantly in our interactions with others. We generally use them to supplement the words we're hearing, but not always.

Perhaps you've seen it used in ways I have not, so I respect your opinion. I just think nonverbal is a good, valid term. I like it. Always have. And it's not non-traditional. It's everyday. I agree that when it's the sole method of communication, few of us are attuned to it and we probably don't think to pay that close of attention. But, instead of throwing out the term, why don't we just use it properly and use it to bring attention to the many ways we all communicate and how to pay attention to those communications when they're not accompanied by a more common type of communication - verbal language, sign, communication boards, ...

Anonymous said...

I agree with Tamara. It feels to me that by refusing to acknowledge communication as nonverbal, we're implying that real communication has to be through words. That seems to be the opposite of what you mean.

Anonymous said...

I am a person with a disability and sometimes I need an accommodation, making speeches, testifying in congress, etc. because the clarity of my speech patters are difficult for people to understand in those settings. I also have difficulty remembering what I want to say without thinking for a minute. I am the listener. Some people underestimated me but I know exactly what is going on.Otherwise I use my own speech and teach others over and over to understand me. Most people are eager to learn it just takes time.
Here is a good example
I was in the hospital. The nurse came in to do my intake information. My Mom and I were both there. The nurse started asking my Mom questions about me. Mom told her I am not your patient you must talk to your patient. The nurse then asked my Mom who my caretaker was. mom responded with Who is your caretaker? With that she started talking to me. Mom assisted me when I asked her to. Mom and Dad stayed with me all the time I was there. A hospital is not a place to be left alone when you are sick!!
I also try to teach people Respectful Language. For example
I am not disabled I am not broken and I don't need to be fixed I have a disability similar to someone who needs eyeglasses to have better vision.

Anonymous said...

I'm confused too. "Non-verbal" is a valid description of forms of communication that dont use spoken words and all of us use it. Its also far quicker to use and convey meaning than "non traditional communicator" because that description makes me think the person is going to use smoke signals or something out of my understanding so I'd start off anxious around them. But if I hear the words "non verbal" I know that just means they dont speak words, so I have to focus on body language/facial clues/'feel'etc. And thats often far less confusing for me personally than having to decipher the verbal communication most people do.

There are also nonverbal learning difficulties where people cant read normal nonverbal communication accurately.

Can you elaborate on why you object to it Dave?

Mary said...

I agree with Tamara, non-verbal communication is a valid term to describe communication that doesn't use words.

You're right that it's not the same thing as being "non-communicative" or unable to speak for oneself, but isn't that your point?

Non-verbal communication is entirely traditional and used, without even thinking about it, by people for whom spoken words and unassisted hearing is the norm. From the enraged driver making an obscene hand gesture, to the teacher smiling and nodding encouragingly at the kids on stage at the school play, to the teenager who *knows* that when his mother stands up with her shoulders in a certain set it's time to stop pushing his luck...

Jim Currie said...

I agree completely with the sentiment of what you say. The fact that someone doesn't talk does not mean that they dont communicate.

Have to disagree though with your terminology though. To refer to a person as being "non verbal" is derogatory, but to apply the phrase to communication is perfectly acceptable.

People use non-verbal communication every day whether they are able to talk or not.

Those who do not talk are likely to have developed their skills in non-verbal communication to a greater extent than those are able to talk.

Jim Currie said...

I agree completely with the sentiment of what you say. The fact that someone doesn't talk does not mean that they dont communicate.

Have to disagree though with your terminology. To refer to a person as being "non verbal" is derogatory, but to apply the phrase to communication is perfectly acceptable.

People use non-verbal communication every day whether they are able to talk or not.

Those who do not talk are likely to have developed their skills in non-verbal communication to a greater extent than those who are able to talk.

Unknown said...

Normally I really like your posts and I typically agree with what you're saying. But not this one! Maybe it's because my son is very young (nearly 5 years old), but I don't agree. Owen is non-verbal--he has NO verbal words at all. I don't think that's condescending or wrong to say. That's what it is and he has to use non-verbal forms of communication to address his needs and wants. And I'm a little offended when you say that you shudder when you hear a parent say that s/he speaks for their child because s/he cannot. If I don't assist with communication, most people won't understand what Owen would like or what he is trying to tell them. I almost always repeat and/or rephrase the question for him if it is something he will understand and be able to provide an answer. So am I supposed to just stand there and do nothing?

Maybe you are referring to adults but that isn't clear here. I would love for my son to be able to communicate with more than just gestures and signs, but right now he does not. So I will be his voice, even if someone else doesn't like that.

Anonymous said...

I respectfully disagree with this premise that if we use the term non verbal we are meaning not communicating. I believe that your example negates your use and meaning of the term.

Miriam Dictionary terms non verbal as :
non·ver·bal adjective \-ˈvər-bəl\

: not involving or using words
: not able to speak
Full Definition of NONVERBAL
: not verbal: as
a : being other than verbal
b : involving minimal use of language
That does NOT imply that they are unable to communicate, just unable to SPEAK using verbal language. Apples and oranges.
NON TRADITIONAL COMMUNICATOR....sheesh Dave. I think THAT implies not being traditional and somehow lacking - which we know is not the case at all. Use the logic of 100's - if you ask 100 people, even 100 who HAVE this issue, which term they find more derogatory, I'll bet you ( non scientifically of course) that at least 99 percent would find the "non traditional" term more derogatory. That's how they label families that are "different" ect.

Dave Hingsburger said...

I guess I didn't write this very well. I completely understand that non-verbal communication is a reality and is equally important to verbal communication, sometimes it's more important. When people refer a person as 'non-verbal' they typically are dismissing the person as a communicator. This may be very different where you live but in my experience it's a way to categorize the individual into a non-communicative state. By using the term 'non traditional communication' or saying that someone is a 'non traditional communicator' it simply means that they communicate in the own way. The are a 'linguistic minority of one,' meaning that they have a communication strategy and it needs to be respected. Knowing that someone frowns when they are delighted or smiles when they are in pain means that they are COMMUNICATING emotion and feeling. Using the term 'non verbal communication' is not at issue in the post ... it's the description of someone as 'non-verbal' which translates into 'non communicator' that I'm taking issue with. I need to say to that I work, exclusively, with adults so view everything through that lens. When people say they are speaking for someone who can't speak for themselves - I worry. When I've adovcated alongside someone who doesn't speak, it's always based on what the person communicates through non-traditional means as is understood by the person who knows her best.

Anonymous said...

I think it would be interesting to hear from sign language users on this. I understood from my (Deaf) sign language teacher that to confuse VOCAL and VERBAL is disrespectful, vocal refers to communication using voice, such as speech, and verbal refers to any shared code- that could be written words, symbols, logos, as well as sign language. Non verbal does not mean not-speech, it means not-speech, not-sign, not-symbols, not-written words etc.
I work as a speech pathologist and while I am entirely happy with using the term ‘non verbal communication’ to refer to body posture, sighs and grimaces etc. Like Dave, I don’t like to use it to refer to non traditional coded communication- the actions of those who don’t use systems recognised outside the circle of people who know them well.
I call it ‘personal’, so I write things like S uses personal signs that are recognised by her immediate family and others who know her well, or H communicates through personal signals such as distinctive arm movements and facial expression that are recognised by those who know him well and detailed in his support plan at home.
I aim to say what it is, not what it isn’t, so I’m not tempted by the term non-traditional....

Laura said...

I just wanted to say that I an enjoying this discourse it is causing me to rethink some things. Love when that happens. Also in my experience and I have kids in my care who do not speak and friends who do not speak... but I never ever considered this particular label one way or the other. I do know that I agree with dave that when I think about adults I hate the thought that someone has to be their voice if it it is said in that disrespectful tone Or as I have seen happen to a friend who does not speak ,people speak for him, because they think it's faster if the guess what he needs then giving him time to get his point across. In the case of the kids I work with most of them have some limited to no verbal abilities at all. It's not at all bothersome to me when a parent helps that child to get a point across because it might be simpler if they do it. Maybe because I feel like people do that for typically developing kids too. Like I said this is very interesting and educational for me.

Andrea S. said...


In regard to what you say about assisting your son in communication: I think there is a communication misunderstanding between you and Dave. I think it is very important to make a distinction between:

Speaking FOR a person (which to me implies, excluding the person from the conversation altogether, doing all the listening without helping the person understand what is happening, making all the decisions without consulting the person, then doing all the talking without checking in with the person what message THEY want to convey)

And FACILITATING communication (or, as you term it, assisting with communication), which to me implies helping ensure that the person understands what is being said and what is happening and what the options are, getting their input, and conveying what THEY want to be said to whoever needs to hear it. In other words, THIS is what you are already doing for your son. You aren't "speaking for him" in the sense of deciding in your own mind what you believe he thinks or wants. You're essentially acting in a role of interpreter between his mode of communication and the mode of communication that other people use. Basically, you and Dave have been using "speaking for the person" to mean different things, and I think that is where the misunderstanding arises.

The line does appropriately get a little fuzzy with younger children like yours who (simply due to age and inexperience alone, even apart from whatever disabilities they might have) have more difficulty understanding certain concepts (especially concepts outside their inexperienced frame of reference) or making decisions that consider both short term and long term implications of their choices as well as appropriately anticipating potential unintended consequences of their choices, and other things challenging for any young child. Sometimes parents do need to take over to a certain extent just because of the child's age, cognitive development, and inexperience. But even young children do still know their own mind in many areas, and it sounds like you are already doing well within what means of (non-linguistic) communication you have available to find out what that is for you son to the extent you can. So in the sense that Dave (and I) use the phrase "speaking for him" ... no, actually you're not doing that. You're facilitating, or supporting, or assisting him with communication.

I think Dave (and I) tend to be more attentive to making this sharp distinction in meaning between "speaking FOR a person" (in the sense of excluding the person from the communication altogether) versus FACILITATING (or assisting) communication because, unfortunately, a great many people who say they are "speaking for" really do mean they are excluding the person altogether without ever consulting them.

Hope this helps.

Andrea S. said...

Okay, sign language (American Sign Language/ASL) user speaking here by popular demand :-)

I do not think the term "non-verbal" is inherently offensive. I DO agree that different people do seem to use it to mean very different things. Same thing for descriptions like "non-linguistic communication" or "does not have language skills" or, for that matter, "non-traditional communication".

I think "non-verbal" may have a certain precise meaning in certain fields and professions: for example, I think I.Q. tests (someone correct me if I'm wrong) use "verbal" (in the sense of "verbal intelligence") to mean codified linguistic communication which could be either speech/listening or reading/writing. Thus, a written vocabulary test could assess "verbal skills" even if no speech is involved. It may well be that professional linguists might use "verbal" to include signed languages I am guessing the Deaf sign language teacher (from Anonymous who posted Jan. 23rd at 15:35 pm) might have taken a linguistics course somewhere in his training for becoming a sign teacher. HOWEVER, I think most people in casual conversation (including some deaf people who haven’t studied linguistics) may not necessarily be thinking of these precise definitions of "non-verbal" but may have other, less formal definitions.

I agree with Dave that sometimes people misuse the term "non verbal" to mean "a person who [supposedly] has no communication at all". I also have heard people describe deaf children as "having no language skills" --but upon further query it turns out the child DOES have TREMENDOUS language skills-- in sign language! Just not in spoken or written language! Yet there ARE some deaf children who, for various reasons, may actually not have any linguistic skills in any spoken, written, or signed language. But of course they may still use personal signs understood by their family, or may use gestures and facial expression with strangers. So the phrase “no language” isn’t always used the same way either.

Same problem for "non-traditional communication": Dave seems to use it to mean pretty much anything other than speech/listening. In which case sign language could be "non-traditional". But, for some people in this discussion thread, "non-traditional" evokes images of using smoke to communicate!

So far, what I like best is the approach that Anonymous at Jan 23rd/15:35 pm uses: i.e., describing exactly how the person DOES communicate. In cases where a specific individual person is involved, this is probably really the only way to ensure that others will understand your description to mean what you actually mean for it to say!

How to talk about different GROUPS or POPULATIONS of people is a larger, more complex challenge. One thing that makes this issue so complex is that there is sometimes genuine reason to make distinctions among many different overlapping populations. And then, sometimes there isn't. Anyone who uses something other than speech/listening in the dominant language of the culture shares certain challenges in common, so there are times when it is legitimate to have dialogue about all these shared challenges and solutions for them regardless of whether the people are using signs, writing, gestures, or whatever. But people who use sign language as their primary mode of in-person (or phone) communication may legitimately have different needs and concerns than people who use writing/typing as their primary mode of in-person communication, and different again from people who use pictorial communication boards with few or no spoken or written or signed words. So there are times when there is good reason to have separate conversations about these differing sets of challenges/solutions. And we still need vocabulary to make these distinctions, while also needing vocabulary that groups them together (when it is appropriate to do so).

Liz said...

I have really enjoyed reading this discussion and it shows how important words are to all of us. There seems to be a clear consensus that 'non verbal' ommunication is something we all do all of the time, yet some of us can evidence how e translate these cues to words. Who am I to decree that someone who doesn't vocalise doesn't do something the same or similar without vocalising the thoughts? I prefer to use the rather clumsy prase 'communicates without speech' to express an opinion.

Some years ago my daughter described an experience for when she was six years old, four years before she had the physical ability to form speech. It made me very glad that I had always insisted that everyone treat her as if she understood, and offer her a rich world of experience.

Non-verbal may be a technically correct term but in my experience it is often used to exclude and dehumanise a person.

clairesmum said...

Non verbal. Seems more accurate as an adjective to describe certain types of communication that we all use, but NOT as a noun..then it becomes a label of sorts, and diminishes the person involved. Language is so powerful, and we are sometimes so careless with it. Thanks for getting this discussion going.

AkMom said...

Dave, Have you seen this?

Left me in tears.

Anonymous said...

Non-verbal is essentially another form of language just as ASL is its own language. What it seems that Dave is trying to get at is the labelling of people who are non-verbal communicators and de-valuing their ability to speak for themselves. Labelling can be a powerful weapon that destroy creditability for objects and in this, it is a population of people. I have nothing against using the word non-verbal to describe a type of communication.

People who can speak verbally also use non-verbal cues in their communication. Its called body language! Body language can tell a person more about you in a job interview rather than the verbal answering of questions. The potential employer can read the real interest levels and the confidence (or lack of) just by the posture of the interviewee. This is the same as non-verbal communication. Some people, this is their only form of communication. People just need to change their mind-set of how they view people and look at the person as a person rather than look at their ability and assume of what they can do based off ignorance that they believe that they know it all.

Anonymous said...

My name is Kayla and I really loved this entry ( I was assigned to read it for a class in the BEd program I'm in at STFX). I cannot express to you how much I hate the term ' non verbal' as well.
I was diagnosed with a 'non verbal' learning disability a few years ago after I had gone through elementary, middle and high school successfully. Hearing that term is confusing. I'm a functioning member of society, I communicate very well - why does this disability have to be called non verbal?
If anything it should be called ' extremely verbal' in my case. For example, for all my exams during my undergrad degree, I had a scribe. I would TALK MY EXAMS OUT. VERBALLY. I would talk whole essays through and someone would type what I was saying. ' non verbal' is such a bizarre and such a frustrating term. Many people may even be in my shoes by means of it being the opposite of how they actually learn etc. You made some really awesome points and I appreciate it!

SB said...

Along with Kayla I was asked to read this Blog for ST.FX Education.I Found it interesting because I believe that regardless of which way people communicate to one another we are all communicating in one form or another. Yes,there are many people out there that communicate to each other in ways we may not see every day, however depending on who you are communicating with you will use different techniques. We all have all found ways to communicate with new borns, children and even animals, however each person does this differently. So i guess my point is why do we have to put a label on the type of communication we are using? WE ARE STILL COMMUNICATING and CONNECTING and for me that is the big picture.

Anonymous said...

Dave – thank you for sharing your thoughts! As a B.Ed student I am currently taking an Inclusion class and after just a few short weeks I am already so grateful for the ways in which discussions such as this have opened my eyes and mind to different perspectives surrounding the issue of exclusion, whether it be in a classroom or in society as a whole. I appreciate every comment that has been made as each of them has allowed me to view this issue from a different angle. However, I do strongly agree with “clairesmum” that the term “nonverbal” should not be used as a noun because then it becomes a label. It is a form of communication, and forms of communication should not define the value of a person. Language and terminology is such a powerful thing that we must always be aware of how what we say affects other people. I believe it is essential to see the person first and foremost, not the disability.

Anonymous said...

I love this. I'm a nurse. I don't work in a hospital now, but I have in the past. I'm trying to think of how to explain this to someone who needs to understand it in the context of trying to check off an "admission" in a hurry. I agree, "he is nonverbal" has been translated to "he is non-communicative"; I have seen it. I know for sure that body language conveys a huge amount of meaning, and have observed that my words, when someone is stressed, just drop into a hole somewhere. Most of the admission procedure is for payors and administrators and bean counters. People don't realize that nursing has become pretty much a factory job with productivity (measured by documentation) standards--number of procedures completed per hour, etc. This needs to change but that is a whole other rant. I guess I, also, would agree with just tell me what works, rather than what doesn't. Anyway, that's what I would appreciate most, if I were the nurse in that situation.

Thomas Brown said...

Interesting and well written article, but I have to disagree.

I work with two men for the past three years that are non-verbal. One communicates through actions and written word, and one communicates only through gestures. Although there is a steep learning curve, they can both communicate incredibly well.

The definition of verbal is "express[ion] in spoken words; oral rather than written" They do not use spoken language to communicate.

If I walked into work one day and was told these men "speak in a non-traditional manner", I would have no sweet clue how they communicated. Do they use morse-code?

Saying non-verbal does not connote an inability to communicate. The majority of communication (97%) is non-verbal anyway! Saying non-verbal connotes a persons ability to communicate through other means.

In my own life my non-verbal friends are often better at letting me know what they want, and how they feel better than my verbal friends.

LBowie said...

Lindsay Bowie:

I was pleased to read about the mother who was at the hospital to support her child, rather than to "speak for" her child. In a lot of cases these days, parents are doing all the talking rather than letting children communicate on their own. It says quite a bit about the character of both the parent as well as the 'non-verbal' or 'non-traditional communicator', whichever suits you.

I think rather than to argue over semantics, encourage people to become informed, become more inclusive. Help them to see the person instead of the disability. I think that to be a better human being and citizen is more effective than slapping labels on everything and then arguing about who is right. As long as people are valued in society, it shouldn't matter what their label is.