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Interview between Ann Bedard, M.S., CCC-SLP and Kevin Williams, Prentke AAC Distinguished Lecture at ATIA 2021

How were you chosen to give the Edwin and Esther Prentke Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) Distinguished Lecture at ATIA?

Kevin WilliamsI was nominated by Celeste Helling, a Charlotte based SLP who works at the North Carolina Assistive Technology Program (NCATP). Celeste submitted a written nomination to the review committee for the lecture. The review committee chose me from the pool of nominees they had this year. It wasn’t much to do on my end as Celeste knows most of my history, because she has helped me get my AAC devices since I moved to North Carolina from Ohio. There was just a quick e-mail exchange asking for my consent to be nominated, my topic for the lecture, and a 5-minute video of me speaking in order to demonstrate I could answer questions spontaneously after I completed my talk.

What could other PWUAAC (People who use AAC) learn from your journey?

I hope that people learn that each person’s journey to communicate is unique to them, and the journey is hard work for everyone. Yes, I have a love and talent for using technology, but I also put in the time to learn my communication system outside therapy sessions and time with my family. Being raised by a single mother putting herself through school, I saw and learned to always appreciate the help but strive for independence with a strong determination. A person will know what I am trying to communicate by any means necessary.

I’m always trying to figure out how to increase consistency for the AAC user and it’s often hard to figure out where the breakdown is. How did it work out so well in your case?

I know SLPs love having everyone “buy-in” to AAC, but I think you are looking at it from the wrong direction. The only person that needs to “buy-in” into the AAC strategies is the augmented communicator. Parents, teachers, and friends that the Augmented Communicator encounters rarely care or really grasp the nuts and bolts about the new strategies learned in therapy. They just want to reap the results of the application of the strategy in communication. The “buy-in” for them is having the patience to listen, keep the system running, and keep the system available to the communicator at all times. Any other things are done in therapy.

To use a sports analogy comparing it to basketball: in a training session, a player and trainer work on playing skills like footwork and form on their jump shot. The player and trainer can get excited over the strategies to improve skills on the court. Other players, who are peers on the court, may notice and have interest in the drills the player does to improve skills on the court. But coaches and family members may concentrate on the results of applying those skills to make plays and score. They may not know or care about the drills. Yet if the player “buys into” the drills, they will then be successful.

My mom didn’t know any Bliss (symbols set) when I was little, nor did any of my family or friends. They just read the labels. Yet my SLP worked on an advanced Bliss while I was in therapy sessions. My friends and family don’t know Minspesk, and still they support me 100% just by talking to me. I still finger spell and use my natural voice to communicate with close family and friends. Yet I can easily use my device when in public.

Look at how the person augments their communication strategies in therapy, in class, or at home. Can the person employ a strategy to say something more effectively?

How did you come up with the term “augmented communicator” and why is it better than the alternatives?

I came up with the term Augmented Communicator myself. I believe through hard work and a level of mastery in the methods we use to communicate, it actually changes (“augments”) how we communicate or at least how we approach communicating. Optimizing our approach to fit our methods, makes people better communicators.

Looking at the use of the phrase as a tool for advocacy, all of my assistive technology, wheelchair and AAC Devices are just extensions of my identity as a disabled person. The phrase Augmented Communicator is used in the spirit of the identity-first language model in order for the communication disability to be seen as a limitation put on by surrounding society rather than something to overcome with the aid of technology.

The goal is not to be seen separate from my Assistive Technology. The goal is to see my assistive technology as just how I speak, walk, cook or whatever I use it for to accomplish success in my daily life. My assistive technology is an essential part of me and how I interact with the world. It goes everywhere I do, and it can’t be turned off or put away (e.g. in a bag, or on a shelf) at any time I need to interact. The label, Augmented Communicator, captures all of that in two words and allows people to take ownership of their communication. Anybody can be a person who uses AAC, but not everyone can be an Augmented Communicator without putting in the work, or that’s at least how I feel.

Like any label, Augmented Communicator is no better or worse than any other label. They are a personal choice of how we perceive ourselves and how we organize things to make sense from a particular perspective. Not everyone will agree with my perspective, but having the ability to put it into words for people to disagree with is something to savor.