There are many different forms of communication, both verbal and non-verbal in nature. While many of us will take communication for granted, others need a little more support. Thankfully there are a range of relatively low-tech aids available to support those with complex communication needs. These include Makaton, PECS and Talking Mats – all of which are put to good use across education and healthcare settings to promote inclusion and person-centred care.
There are also a range of new digital technologies coming onto the market, known as Alternative and Augmentative Communication aids (AAC). These include tailored visual communication software, eye gaze communication aids and more. While many readers may be familiar with the potential benefits of such technologies – made most famous perhaps by the physicist Stephen Hawking – the number of people with access to these tools continues to be low.
There are a number of reasons why this may be the case. Firstly, it may be that care teams perhaps don’t realise that these technologies are not solely restricted to private funders. It may also be the case that some service users have not had the correct needs assessment, or their potential for communication may have been under-appreciated, to the extent that the care team may not realise that they are able to communicate in a different way.
Access to augmentative communication aids
From my own experience, there is a general lack of awareness around Alternative and Augmentative Communication aids, including who might benefit from the technology, who provides it, and how to make a referral. There is also an ongoing shortage of speech and language therapists across the UK, which means that caseloads are often quite high, and as such, priority must be given to certain cases over others, with swallowing difficulties naturally taking priority.
This shortage has been an ongoing problem for quite some time, leading to a backlog of cases. This is an issue as in many cases, referral systems for augmentative technology often need a full report from a speech and language therapist before they can proceed. And yet equally, we also know that there are cases where sometimes these services are under-utilised, perhaps through lack of awareness, or care teams not fully understanding the role of speech and language therapists in the referral process. This suggests that the problem may be even bigger than we think it is, and there may be many more people who could benefit from a referral.
Supporting capacity through communication
It is everyone’s right to be heard, and it is our responsibility to make reasonable adaptations to support social inclusion and the active participation of service users within their respective communities. It is also out duty of care to treat each person with upmost respect, uphold their rights and ensure best practice.
Effective communication is an essential part of this process, and augmentative technology can be a valuable tool to help support social inclusion. It is also an important part of the Mental Capacity Act (2005), as the second principle requires that we support capacity wherever possible – of which, communication is a part.
It is therefore vital that we familiarise ourselves with the range of communication aids available, and the process through which to make referrals to support the service users under our care. These augmentative communication tools can be absolutely life changing for some service users, and can play a pivotal role in helping us support capacity among the most vulnerable groups. It is therefore essential that we put these tools to good use.