A Curious Situation: When People Who Cannot Speak Won’t Accept Help


In my last blog post, I wrote about a challenging situation faced by many people who cannot speak—family members and caregivers who don’t help as much as they could or should.

Today, I want to address the opposite situation: when nonverbal adults DO have the people and tools available to them to help them communicate, but for one reason or another, choose not to take advantage of those opportunities to their fullest.

 Picture of someone not engaging in communicationIt may seem strange to think that someone who has lost the ability to speak would not actively seek help, but the truth is, this is much more common than you would think. And when you look into it, there are understandable reasons why this might be the case.

Now, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t find ways to help them anyway, but it would be better for all involved if you go into those discussions with some understanding and empathy.

So, lets’ start by examining some of the reasons that people who cannot speak might choose to not seek out help or even actively discourage others from helping them.

Reasons Why Some Nonverbal Adults May Not Want Help

There are several reasons why someone who has lost their ability to speak might not want help. Let’s look at some of the most common reasons. These can be broken down into three categories—emotional/physiological states, mindsets, and fears:

  1. Emotional/Physiological States—One possibility is that the person is experiencing one or more negative states that are keeping them for asking for help.
  • For example, they may be highly frustrated and overwhelmed by the situation and this state of high anxiety is keeping them from looking outward to others for answers.
  • Another possibility is that the person may be feeling a sense of loss or sadness or even depression as they try to come to terms with this change in their life situation. As a result, they may lack the motivation necessary to try things that might help them.
  • In some cases, the person who has lost their ability to speak may feel a sense of isolation and disconnection from others, leading to a deep loneliness that they find hard to break out of.
  1. Mindsets—Often, the attitude or mindset the nonverbal person adopts in response to their loss of speech leads to further difficulties. Here are a few mindsets that might be challenging.
  • Sometimes the person is so determined to maintain their independence that they try to do everything for themselves. And while independence is a good goal, it can be overdone. There are times when communicating to ask for a little help is the best course.
  • Sometimes the person assumes that their loved ones or caregivers know what they need—after all, the person may have known them for many years—so they don’t look for ways to express their needs.
  • Sometimes the person is simply in denial about their situation. They think that it’s not that bad, so they delude themselves and act like they don’t need help.
  • And sometimes, the opposite is true—they adopt a fierce acceptance of the new situation and basically say (either in words or just through their attitude), “Hey, if you can’t understand me, that’s your problem. This is who I am now, so deal with it!”
  1. Fears—The final category of challenges are fears that can hold the person back from seeking or accepting help. These fears include:
  • Fear of rejection. They may think that, if they ask for help, their caregivers won’t want to be bothered and will turn them down.
  • Fear of trying something new. Especially for people who lose their ability to speak suddenly (as through a stroke or head injury), they’ve never had any problems communicating. All of a sudden, everything about their lives is different and they might reject out of hand anything you might suggest to help them communicate better, just because it seems strange and uncomfortable.
  • Fear of technology. There are some amazing technological tools that can help people who cannot speak to communicate (more on that in a moment), but some people aren’t tech savvy and would rather try to muddle through than try to learn a new piece of technology.

Like I said above, these are the most common reasons why a person who cannot speak might not seek help or might even turn help down, but every situation is unique and there might be something else going on.

Some people may simply prefer to communicate through nonverbal means, such as gestures or facial expressions, or they may feel more comfortable using written communication.

How to Help Someone Who Doesn’t Want Help

So, how DO you help someone who doesn’t want help? This can obviously be tricky.

The first step is to try to identify the root cause of their reluctance. You might begin by examining the common causes listed in the previous section to see if one or more of them apply to the situation and then act accordingly.

So, for example, if the person appears to have the characteristic symptoms of depression, you might take them to see a doctor or psychologist for evaluation. Perhaps medication or therapy might alleviate the depression and then the person might be more capable of accepting help.

On the other hand, maybe it’s a mindset issue. For example, if the person appears to be expecting you to anticipate all their needs, you might need to sit down with them and explain that, even though you’ve known them for years, you still can’t read their mind and that you need to find a process for them to communicate those needs to you so that you can be of more help.

If the challenge seems to be more of a fear, then you need to help them get over the fear. For example, if the person seems to be reluctant to try a technological tool and you know that, in the past, they’ve shied away from learning new tech, you might need to introduce the helpful tool and demonstrate it for them, then slowly incorporate the tool into your interactions one feature at a time until they become comfortable with it.

Of course, you don’t want to be heavy-handed in any of this. It’s always important to respect the wishes of the individual and work with them to find a way of communicating that’s comfortable and meaningful to them.

It might also be helpful to enlist the help of a Speech Language Pathologist or other communication specialist to assess the person’s needs and help them find alternative communication methods that work for them.

Apps for Nonverbal Communication

Speaking of alternative communication methods, you may or may not be aware of all of the powerful tools that are now available to assist people who cannot speak to communicate.

In recent years, a number of powerful apps for nonverbal communication have been developed. For example, our own product, APP2Speak, is a flexible tool that offers several ways for someone who has lost their speech to communicate—through both photo to speech and text to speech capabilities.

If you have yet to introduce your family member or patient to this powerful technology, this could be a game-changer. No matter the source of the person’s reluctance to seek help, an app like APP2Speak can allow the person to quickly and easily begin to communicate, which in turn may dispel their reluctance to accept other types of help.

If you’d like to learn more about how apps for nonverbal adults work, go to our How It Works page and our FAQ page for more information.