How a Speech Impairment App Can Help You Communicate with a Loved One Who Has Lost Their Speech
In my work as a Speech Language Pathologist and in my role as the creator of the AAC app, APP2Speak, I encounter many tragic stories—people who have had strokes, brain injuries, or radical surgeries that have affected their lives in profound ways.
One Tragedy that Leads to Another
These stories are tragic enough in the short-term. But then, for many of these people, a second tragedy compounds the first—they lose most or all of their ability to speak and communicate with their loved ones, co-workers, and caregivers, and this loss may continue for a very long time, perhaps even for the rest of their lives.
Here are just a few such stories shared with me recently in inquiries about APP2Speak on the website:
“I’m interested in purchasing the app for a family member who had a stroke who lives on a fixed income and has difficulty with tech.” -Bob
“I have a speech impairment from my accident.” -Aaron
“I had a laryngectomy (due to cancer) and cannot speak anymore. I’ve been trying prosthetic voices, but none work for me.” -Clyde
“My mother recently had a stroke and it caused severe issues with her speech and communication. It’s extremely frustrating for her.” -Don
The Magic of Apps that Talk for You
There’s no doubt about it. The people I meet through my work—like the four quoted above—face difficult challenges in trying to communicate for themselves (if they’re the one who has lost their speech) or in trying to communicate with a loved one who has lost their speech.
But thankfully, all is not gloom and doom. In recent years, technology has made great strides in providing helpful tools for people who cannot speak due to a stroke, a brain injury, a laryngectomy, or any other cause.
Today, speech apps for iPad or Android devices allow users to take advantage of preprogrammed phrases that allow them to express their everyday needs.
AAC apps such as APP2Speak speak words, phrases, and even complete sentences and give users the support they need to live active, independent lives, continue to participate in recreational activities, and even continue with their employment.
The Most Important Tool: A Caring Loved One
As the creator of APP2Speak, I’m very proud that I can provide a speech app for people who are nonverbal to use to better communicate with the world around them.
But as great as I think APP2Speak is, I understand that it’s just a tool—and not even the most important tool—for helping someone with a speech impairment live a more normal life.
No, the most important tool of all is YOU—the loved one, friend, or caregiver of the person who has lost their ability to speak.
Why do I say that you’re the most important tool?
Because the app by itself can’t communicate with another person if there’s no one else around. It takes a real, live person who’s interested in carrying on a conversation with the app user and who will take the time to do so.
A Useful AAC App + an Attentive Conversation Partner = A Powerful Combination
No matter how good the AAC technology is, the quality of your conversations with your loved one depends on how you go about communicating with them.
Here are 7 dos and 3 don’ts to be aware of to ensure that your loved one feels included and listened to. First, the dos:
- DO Plan Ahead—AAC users need time to compose their communications, so it’s really helpful when they have some quick messages composed ahead of time and pre-stored, ready to use at the appropriate time. Help them understand all the technical capabilities of the app so they can create and use these time-saving shortcuts as much as possible
- DO Invite the AAC User to Initiate the Topic—People conversing with AAC users often take charge in discussions because they feel that the AAC user is “taking too long.” It can be really frustrating for the AAC user who is about to propose a topic to have the other person jump into another topic before they have a chance.
- DO Bring Your Full Attention to the Discussion—Sit down close to the AAC user or across from them, make eye contact, and send the message with your body language that you’re ready to talk.
- DO Listen—We all have the bad habit of only half-listening to our conversation partners. We’re usually so busy composing in our heads what we’re going to say next that we often misunderstand what the other person is saying. This is especially problematic when conversing with an AAC user. The keys to being a good listener are: don’t interrupt, ask clarifying questions when needed, check with the other person to confirm that you’ve understood what they’re saying, and allow silences.
- DO Be Patient—Expect that a conversation with an AAC user is going to take a lot longer than most conversations. Relax, be patient, wait, and allow time for the AAC user to compose a message. Slowing the pace reduces stress and improves understanding.
- DO Talk Naturally and Normally—Don’t be weird. Don’t talk suuuper sloooowly just because it takes the AAC User a while to compose their messages. Don’t talk extra loudly. They have trouble talking, not trouble hearing. Talk at your normal pace and volume and talk about topics you’re both interested in.
- DO Advocate for the AAC User—When you and the AAC user are holding a conversation with multiple people, stand up for the AAC user. Ask others to wait while the AAC user composes their messages. Also, ask the AAC user how the conversation would work best for them. Sometimes, they might prefer to take the conversation online (via social media or email). Virtual conversations provide fewer barriers because both those who can speak and those who can’t are using technology rather than speech to communicate.
And here are some common pitfalls to avoid:
- DON’T Underestimate the AAC User—Research suggests that conversation partners often underestimate AAC users due to the limitations of the technology. People who can speak often interpret a slow pace, long pauses, broken eye contact, and missing nonverbal cues as poor communication skills or, worse, as indications of a lack of intelligence. AAC users have a problem with their communication, not their intelligence. Many issues that occur when conversing with an AAC user are limitations of the technology, not a lack of conversational skills.
- DON’T Finish Their Sentences or Assume You Know What They Mean—This can be extremely frustrating to the AAC user. Again, this problem is caused by impatience. When you’re in a hurry to move the conversation along, you may assume you know what they’re trying to say, which leads to you preparing your response and interrupting before the AAC user has the chance to finish their thought.
- DON’T Pretend You Understand When You Don’t—Sometimes the limitations of the software make it difficult for you to know if you’ve understood what the AAC user is saying. In these situations, it’s best not to “fake it.” Be honest and admit you don’t understand. It’s better to backtrack a bit and get it right than to take the conversation off track completely because you’re guessing.
Moving On from Tragedy
Yes, it’s tragic when a loved one has a stroke or brain injury or some other event that causes them to lose the ability to speak.
But you don’t have to compound that initial tragedy by allowing your loved one to become locked into a life of silence and isolation.
Instead, be proactive. Explore the many benefits that today’s speech apps offer to people who cannot speak without assistance.
Then, step up and spend time with your loved one. Commit to becoming a regular conversation partner. The repeated practice will often help your loved one improve in their ability to speak (especially if they’ve had a stroke), but whether improvement takes place or not, they will feel included and loved. And isn’t that the best thing you could possibly do for them?