The first week of September is winding down, and it seems that everyone is officially back to school. It’s been *cough*teen years since I was in school and now, as I look towards the two-month countdown to my girls aging out of Early Intervention and tumbling into preschool, I’m realizing how much has fundamentally changed with the educational philosophy I’m seeing in public schools. I think that from my perspective the short version difference, summed up, would be “everybody gets an iPad” and “7-year-olds keep getting suspended for sexual harassment.” I don’t want to shortchange inclusion, though. We’re only about forty-odd years out from the “official” inception of intentional public special education, but a lot has changed. We are starting to understand that
* people who cannot speak can still be intelligent, thoughtful and articulate
* there can be multiple factors (processing speed, noisy environment, fine motor difficulty, sensory overload, physical discomfort) contributing to the sometimes wide variation in an individual person’s school performance and how they manage different types of testing situations
* technology is making adaptations for special learners easier
* people with disabilities can speak for themselves and describe the further adaptations and considerations that they think are needed to help all children have access to learning
Before I get too far ahead of myself– I’m no expert on any of this. My classroom teaching experience has only been in the “under three” domain, with the exception of one year of one-on-one and small-groupn tutoring with elementary school students. My formal education has been largely developmental and focused solely on infants and toddlers. I have no great understanding of the history of public education in the US, although I am very interested and it’s on my “next time I have five minutes alone and can convince myself to do something besides five minutes of zone-out Candy Crush-ing” to-do list. In addition, I am not a person with disabilities and I have never had to go through the special education system myself as a student.
For now, I’m looking ahead to November and that first heart-bursting-yet-gut-wrenching day when I send my beautiful, spirited little girls off to preschool with giant backpacks. I’m thinking about the backpack that’s going to have an iPad in it, and how I could fill three hours talking to all of Ham’s teachers and therapists about every single thing I want them to know about AAC and what Ham needs. I can’t sit down with them for three hours, though (my G-d, they would hate me).
There are so many things I want them to know that feel non-negotiable. I want Ham to be respected– not talked at, or over, or about. I want her choices to be about learning and not behavior management, and I want them to be hers. I don’t want anyone “puppeting” her by taking her hand and forcing her to type things– which, I’ll admit, I’ve done before when I didn’t realize it amounted to squeezing a speaking child’s cheeks together to try to force them to say something. And I want her to always, always have access to her words.
Most importantly is the tangible but hard-to-describe-in-brief feeling of desperately wanting Ham to build up a strong sense of self-worth and agency. This is important to me for both of my daughters, of course, but it feels even more urgent to build self-advocacy skills early in a child who is nonverbal and relies on a device that is completely separate from her and can be physically taken away. Can you imagine if, as a child, your voicebox was external to your body and could be physically removed and then reattached? How many times would an adult who shushed you be tempted to just remove it for a little while until you could have it back?
With all of this in mind, I typed up an preschool AAC bill of rights– just one page with size 10 Arial font (I checked)– to send in with her iPad info and “All About Me” page that I wrote up and will be sharing here in a few days for both of my girls. This covers the bare minimum of what I want Ham’s teachers, therapists, and aides to know about AAC, although there will be much discussion and (fingers crossed) ongoing consultation with Ham’s current AAC specialist within the classroom to keep everyone on the same page.
The Preschool AAC User’s Classroom Rights
I have the right to access my device all day long, in all environments and situations.
This may not be easy on the playground, during messy art activities, or in the bathroom, but my device is my voice, and taking away my voice is like silencing a speaking child. Please ensure I always have access to my words.
I have the right to access all of my available vocabulary.
Children my age often experiment with saying “bad” words, using language repetitively, or speaking at times when they should be listening. Like my peers, I will need to be taught social language rules alongside language use. Please do not ever take away my option to use words by removing my access to vocabulary.
I have the right to be heard and listened to.
Please give me the time and attention I need to gather my thoughts and express them. I may need your assistance in:
— adjusting the volume of my device so I can be properly heard in a noisy environment and communicating to my parents if my device does not seem loud enough
— encouraging other children with whom I am trying to communicate to wait just a moment while I type
— waiting, waiting and waiting some more because I will need time to go through the process of sorting through both my thoughts and my 600+ accessible words, all of which requires additional motivation, focus and clarity that might be hard for me to maintain in a fun and busy classroom
— speaking slowly and clearly so that I have time to hear and process what you said before responding
I have the right to access vocabulary relevant to the new things I’m learning in school!
Please stay in touch with my parents about words they may need to add to my device before we start a new unit so that I can keep up with my peers, and please tell them at the end of a school day if some other new words popped up that I will need access to.
I have the right to learn through modeling.
When my teachers and therapists use a matching device along with me, I can hear the words they’re using and simultaneously see how they construct phrases and sentences with a device like mine. This is called “Aided Language Stimulation” and is an important part of how AAC users learn to use language.
I have the right to be the only one making my finger touch the screen.
Sometimes I get tired, frustrated, stubborn or distracted and I don’t want to use my device. It is important to always let me be in control of using my own words so my device never becomes aversive to me. Please do not ever forcibly put my hand to the screen to make me select the things you want me to say. Instead, you can model it for me on your modeling device.
I have the right to be presumed competent.
Please know that even when I cannot speak, I can hear and understand everything you say. Please choose the words you use around me carefully, especially when you are talking about me with someone else. Remember that people with disabilities often receive very negative messages about society’s perception of their value and capabilities. Help me to see from an early age that I am valuable– and help communicate that message to my typical peers by talking positively about AAC and not allowing them to grab my iPad or attempt to damage it.
I would love for anyone and everyone who thinks this document could help them to copy and paste, edit it to fit your child (who may have additional notable needs, or may be older than preschool, or whatever) and send it along with your child on that first, second, fifteenth, or hundredth day of school. If you choose to share it online, feel free, but I’d love a link back here, too! I’m not looking for “credit,” but I’m going to keep posting things that are useful to us through our “entering preschool with AAC” journey and I want people to be able to find all of it.
I invite teen and adult AAC users who may come across this post to add to or correct me if needed! This write-up was designed to represent my daughter and will need to be adapted by others to accurately describe themselves or their children, but I want to ensure I haven’t misspoken in a way that misrepresented AAC users as a whole.