Sunday, January 23, 2011

Voice and its Channels

Voices and its Channels
Everything is about signs or pointing when you don’t have a voice. What other people refer to talking is taken for granted. There is a cobweb of silence that you have to find your way through in order to establish a channel with someone else. Talking takes on a new meaning.

I press a switch under my chin on a laptop to communicate. The system has got me through college and immersed me within the world of journalism. However, there is a limit that a chin can do. Alternative and Augmentative Communication (AAC) is a variety of language systems that people with communication difficulties use to break through some medium or other. Recently, I am starting to realise that there are more options open to me than the single chin switch.

Before everything, I relied on my natural resources - body and eye contact. Being born with cerebral palsy, I had to learn Bliss Symbols which saw me coming to grasp on 500 symbols when I was eight or nine years old. The symbols were on a board that I pointed to with my finger. Every sentence was a series of symbols that had its own grammar – nouns, verbs, prepositions, conjunctions, etc.

If a word was not on the board, I could join two word meanings together or point out letters of the alphabet. It provided me a springboard for the various communication systems I have used to negotiate my voice in able-bodied society. I have used a myriad of outputs and technologies since then. From a Spectrum with an expanded keyboard, onto an Apple with key guard, and finally I got my first voice synthesizer – the Touch Talker. It was after a while when I changed from finger typing to the chin switch. Recently, I have regained control of my right arm again and have rediscovered the valuable resources in non-tech systems.

Communication is a multi-modal process. It’s all stuck in your head. The matter is getting it out. For someone non-verbal, conversation can’t flow as other ones done by other people. Accordingly, it takes a toll on the thought processes of the person albeit they have normal intelligence.

Eye controlled technology has been improved a lot over the last two or three years. People say the eyes are the mirrors to the soul. It’s said that eye gaze systems can be five times faster than pressing on a single switch and that the method will replace its predecessor. A model costs from €14,000-€18,000.

Time isn’t exactly a prerequisite when you can’t talk. On average, it takes me from two to five minutes to compose any normal sentence. Five minutes are an eternity whether you’re talking to someone else or even more time in a group. Getting across your point can seem impossible with all those other strands of thought flying about.

High-tech systems serve their purpose, but low-tech matrices are as equally as important. Having a screen in front of you can take its effect on the interaction, while at the same time, words always do their thing - whether with or without speed.

For non-tech systems, people say out letters of the alphabet, and then I stop them at the appropriate letter that I want by nodding my head. There are additionally two more systems I intend to start using with my Personal Assistants. One of them is a letter board that I point my finger at. It takes time and effort to direct my hand onto the board – the hand which I have reclaimed after 20 years.

The other system is a grid that one of my PA’s (a non-national) came up with a number of years ago. It is the alphabet divided up by columns and rows, that are labelled by numbers from one to five. Someone scans through the columns across first verbally until my nod, and then go down the rows likewise. I have memorised the grid so that it can be used anywhere.

I have been exploring financial incentives for a eye gaze system – both personal and public. I approached my Occupational Therapist years ago, but it was an early stage. It was at an experimental phase. My chin switch and its software are like my safety blanket, that gets me through thick and thin. I have referred to eye gaze as making me almost fluent, that I have to jump for, but it can well be my downfall.

Having no voice may make other people see your insides out. A voice is the outcome of a person’s thoughts. Choice is an innate power that we all have – to create channels in order to make those thoughts into ability. It’s what we make from it what matters.

The International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication (ISAAC) “supports and encourages the best possible communication methods for people who find communication difficult”. Click

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