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Jane pictured with the Communication Access Symbol

I am Jane, a speech pathology student from University of Melbourne. I am in the first year of my two year degree and as part of my course, I was given the opportunity to work at Scope.

Prior to this experience, I had never worked with people with complex communication needs – people who have little or no speech, people whose speech is hard to understand, or people who can communicate their message, but find it hard to understand what other people are saying.

During my time at Scope, I had the chance to join the communication access team. The team consists of speech pathologists and communication access assessors, who are colleagues with communication disabilities. They work with businesses to be awarded the Communication Access Symbol.

While on my placement, I was able to attend a face-to-face communication access assessment at a business, to see how well the staff were able to communicate with a customer with communication difficulties. The communication access assessor who performed the assessment, Bob*, has speech difficulties.  He uses various ways of communicating with others including community request cards, natural gesture and an electronic communication device.

The business was located outside of Melbourne, so we had to travel on (a communication accessible!) V/Line train to get there. On the way I chatted to Bob and it was one of the first conversations I’ve had with a person with little or no speech. I was a little apprehensive at first, however once I had spoken with Bob, I realised that people with communication difficulties are no different to talk to and you just need to ask what the best way to communicate with them effectively is.

At the beginning of the assessment, the assessor indicated that his preferred method of communicating was by using non-electronic communication boards. Communication boards are typically a paper-based set of pictures, words and phrases that are used to assist in communication interactions. At this business, their communication aids also included an alphabet board, which allows a person to spell words out.

During the assessment, I observed the staff member being proactive in communicating with Scope’s communication access assessor. After the assessor asked for the communication boards, the staff member laid them out on the desk. The assessor used the alphabet board to communicate his message. As he pointed to each letter on the board, the staff member took the time to write down each letter to be sure she had understood the assessor’s message.

It was great to see the staff member asking how the communication assessor would like information sent to him. This is really important because some people may have difficulty using some devices, like a smart phone. Other people may rely on screen reader technology, as they have difficulty reading paper-based information. In the case of Bob’s visit, checking to see if he preferred an email or a text message with information was appropriate and gave him options.

The assessment went really well, and I was told that the business would be awarded the Communication Access Symbol!

Before doing this assessment, when I interacted with someone with a communication difficulty, I would ask their friends for clarification instead of the person with the communication difficulty. However, I have learnt that it is important to communicate with the person that has the communication difficulty directly because they are just like everybody else, and it’s important that they have the same respect that anyone else would receive, by speaking directly to the person. At the business we visited, the staff member spoke directly to the communication access assessor and did not ask for help from myself or the consultant.

During my time at Scope I have learnt there can be communication barriers that exist and it is important to break this barrier to allow communication for all.

My top tips are:

  1. Do not rush – give everyone the opportunity to get their message across.
  2. Listen closely – if you have trouble understanding what the person is trying to tell you or the message is really long, you can use a pen and paper to write down the message as you are being told.
  3. Offer communication boards – if you have access to them, make the person aware that boards are available for use if they wish. But remember not to force them on the person.
  4. Speak to the person with the communication difficulty – do not speak to the other people with them. It is important to get the message directly from the person and not from someone else.
  5. Be honest – it’s okay to tell the person if you didn’t understand them and to ask them to say it again.
  6. Check the message – make sure the information you have is correct and ask them to clarify if you are unsure.

In the future, I will be using these tips to improve communication for everyone I interact with. I hope to build on my learning from this experience and incorporate what I have learnt throughout the rest of my degree and in my professional and personal life.