2003 Conference Proceedings

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Bonnie Mintun, parent of a child who uses AAC
633 K Street, Davis, CA 95616
Phone: 530-757-2335
Email: Gosonia@aol.com

Bonnie Mintun is an experienced special education teacher and consultant. She is also the parent of a child who does not speak. Through the combination of her background in education and her life as a parent seeking communication technology for her daughter, she offers several layers of perspective.

Bonnie's daughter Anna, who has multiple disabilities and is now age 18, has attended her neighborhood schools since kindergarten. In spite of her range of disabilities, Anna has been fully included in general education classrooms, in collaboration with special education supervision or support. Through this irreplaceable school and community inclusion, she has had the richness of participation in "regular life" since she was born. Thankfully, this means she has also been immersed all of these years in a solid, language-rich environment.

During the course of Anna's education, a number of beginning AAC strategies have been tried, most with short-lived or marginal success, even though supports and instruction were in place. Picture and symbol communication, sign language, voice output switches, and devices with paper overlays were all attempted at one time or another. Negligible results were found in the use of computer software and games as well. Sometimes it seemed that Anna could not focus on even the most basic cause-and-effect task or apparatus, much to her parents' and teachers' frustration - not to mention her own, undoubtedly.

Fortunately, this impass has been broken in recent years, in an enlightening way. Still believing that Anna was really capable of more, her parents sought the expertise of AAC specialists who were willing to try more complex technology with Anna, even though she could not perform consistently on the simplest of devices. The effect of these people's willingness to go beyond the usual route has brought about significant change in Anna's ability - and desire - to communicate.

Soon after Anna gained access to more complex, "high tech" devices, she began to demonstrate far more competence than was previously seen with the simpler technologies. She did not become an instant expert, but her attraction to such devices was immediate. In effect, she selected the device she needed, once she was allowed to explore beyond her apparent level of functioning.

Currently, Anna is learning to use the Vanguard and its smaller counterpart, the Vantage, made by Prentke Romich Company. These are sophisticated, dynamic-screen-display devices. It is her parents' belief that Anna's interest has been captured by fast changing language, spontaneously programmed language with personal meaning, and more - not fewer - icons to select. Rather than confusing her, the complexity is stimulating her. Finally, she wants to explore expressive language and to use it to interact.

Anna's cognitive and physical challenges, her late start in life, and our own instructional challenges, mean that progress is slow. But as one of those innovative specialists has cautioned us, "Anna has had many years without a real voice; perhaps we should allow her an equivalent length of time to develop one."

Incorporating slides taken of Anna using AAC at home, in the community and at school, Bonnie will share what she has learned about: the danger of having "realistic" expectations; the limitations of developmental thinking and traditional prerequisites; the importance of following the AAC user's lead; and the privilege of participating in conversation with someone who uses communication technology.

Through concrete examples, Bonnie will also provide practical strategies for supporting AAC in inclusive settings, and for connecting school and family in a student's use of AAC. These ideas include: communication strategies between school staff and families; the expanding role of peer tutors and friends; the use of different levels of technology for different situations; integrating family and community life into AAC learning at school; the importance of regular, enjoyable routines; AAC user responsibilities for linking home and school; family involvement in staff training; the role of "pull-out" or "push-in" instruction; and the need for other AAC users' advice and expertise.

Besides offering the practical ideas gleaned from the past 15 years of seeking AAC technology, Bonnie's presentation also provides insight into the family experience of raising a child with a communication disability. Such information is valuable to professionals and families alike, as they instruct and support children who need AAC. Anna's immersion in "regular life", with spoken language all around her, in combination with the process of others gradually learning how to follow her lead, has resulted in the late blooming of a young woman who, in due time, will have a full voice with much to tell us.

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