I-ASC’s Spellers & Allies Advocacy Network (S&A) has been learning about the rights of nonspeaking individuals in schools and colleges. Our investigation was kicked off with a guest presentation from Dawnmarie Gavin, a Spelling to Communicate (S2C) Practitioner, about the rights of nonspeaking individuals in the United States.
Following the presentation, Sarah Ackerman, a minimally speaking member of S&A, said, “After DM’s presentation, I realized the importance of knowing one’s rights. It is extremely essential that people become aware of disability law and understand what they are entitled to. This knowledge can empower individuals to stand up for themselves and can pave the way for future generations of nonspeakers.” Ben Crimm, another S&A nonspeaking member, reflected, “I think it is important to understand that the language and terminology we use in discussions with others must echo the legal terminology, principles, and rights that have already been established in the law.” Through our reflections, S&A determined that it is important for all nonspeaking people to know about three laws: the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Assistive Technology Act, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Americans with Disabilities Act (1990)
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that state governments, local governments, businesses, and nonprofit organizations (entities) that serve the public communicate effectively with people with communication or speech disabilities. (Free Lesson on ADA) Included in this is a person’s ability to communicate with, receive information from, and communicate information to the public entities described above. Considerations for “effective communication” include the nature, length, complexity, and context as well as an individual’s normal method of communication. S2C is effective communication because it gives the individual access to the entire alphabet, which does not limit what they can and cannot communicate. It also allows individuals to produce original, open-ended, and unlimited communication.
Under the ADA, a letterboard would be considered an “auxiliary aid and service,” and it is the responsibility of the public entity a nonspeaking individual is interacting with to provide the needed service. A discovery that S&A ally, Aman Asfah, continued thinking about after DM’s presentation is that the ADA gives primary consideration to the nonspeaking individual to choose their preferred aid or service in order to communicate. This means that if a nonspeaking person says that they prefer to use a letterboard to other modes of communication, this request should be honored under the ADA.
Assistive Technology Act (2004)
“I learned that S2C is a form of AAC. After hearing her speak, I was better informed about the rights of nonspeakers. She was extremely knowledgeable in the area of disability law and an excellent resource and ally,” said Sarah Ackerman.
Spelling to Communicate (S2C) is best understood as a form of Alternative and Augmentative Communication (AAC) where S2C Practitioners provide an assistive technology service (AT services) by teaching nonspeaking, minimally speaking, and unreliably speaking individuals with motor difficulties how to communicate by pointing to letters. Under the US Assistive Technology Act of 2004, States have to provide direct aid to ensure that people with disabilities have the assistive technology that they need. AT services are described in the IDEA (which we will further discuss below) as “any services that support a child in the selection, acquisition, or use of an assistive technology device.”
Furthermore, in the IDEA, an assistive technology device (AT device) is described as, “any piece of equipment or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain or improve the functional capabilities of children with disabilities. The term does not include a medical device that is surgically implanted or the replacement of such device.” S2C is best described as Alternative and Augmentative Communication (AAC) because this title addresses AT devices that specifically support individuals with effective communication. The materials used in S2C: letterboards, including stencils, laminates, and foam boards, as well as wireless keyboards, Ipads, computers, and text-to-voice applications, are all examples of AT Devices.
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (1999)
Divyesh Jain, a nonspeaking member of S&A, said, ”We need to share information about the laws that help nonspeakers use letterboards in schools and colleges to study with their peers.” Ben Crimm reflected, “I firmly believe that we have the legal justification to demand that schools must provide academic instruction in the least restrictive environment and that special education classes as currently conducted do not meet that standard. Students who are nonspeaking are legally entitled to all Assistive Technology that they require, including alphabet boards, electronic devices, and communication support staff, in order to exercise their fundamental right to communicate. Let’s recruit accomplices, not just allies, who will work with us and march toward our goal!” We learned from DM that Ben is absolutely right. Here is how the laws we’ve already discussed come together to ensure nonspeaking people have the right to choose and have their choice of AAC in mainstream classrooms.
Today the IDEA instituted in 1999 is in place to ensure that disabled students are given the support they need to access education. Within the IDEA, inclusion is made up of two elements. The first is the right to the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), which means that disabled students should be educated within classrooms with typical mainstream peers to the fullest extent possible. It goes on to say that “removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only when the nature or severity of the disability of a child is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.”
The second element of IDEA that ensures the inclusion of nonspeaking individuals in schools is the right to Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). FAPE states that educational programs need to be individualized to a specific child so that it meets the child’s needs, provides access to the general curriculum, meets grade-level standards established by the State, and provides educational benefit. When FAPE and LRE come together, every student must be provided with the support and accommodations they need in order to learn alongside their peers in general education classrooms.
Research demonstrates that disabled and nondisabled students receive better math and reading scores, better social and communication skills, fewer referrals for disruptive behavior, and a higher likelihood for employment and independent living when educated together. Thus nonspeakers can rest assured that their presence in general education classrooms has demonstrated an increased benefit to their non-disabled peers. During DM’s presentation, she emphasized that the law does not say that disabled students can only access education if they earn it or if they keep up. Nonspeaking people have a right to inclusive education, as described by LRE and FAPE, no matter what.
Danny Whitty, a nonspeaking member of S&A, reflected, “The main points for me were the immense resistance schools put into denying our access to communication by letterboard; the services I was blocked from in school; the potential I lost over years of segregated education; and the laws already in place need to be implemented. These thoughts trouble me but motivate me to advocate for our community.” Danny, amongst others in our network, shared experiences of being blocked from using a letterboard in their educational environments. Often schools seem to believe that forms of AAC aside from S2C provide more effective communication for nonspeaking people and therefore provide these AT services and devices to their students. Nonspeaking students, however, can take back their right to choose their method of communication through the ADA, which states that primary consideration is given to the disabled individual to decide their preferred mode of communication. This means that if nonspeaking people are using S2C or letterboards outside of school and it is their most effective mode of communication, they can request it in school, and the school, under US disability laws, must provide it as well as the necessary training, and services for it to be used effectively.
After learning all of this, Becky, an allied member of S&A, said, “The law states that people with disabilities have the right to education while using whichever Augmentative and Alternative Communication method best suits them. So why do people who are nonspeaking/ who spell to communicate have to fight so hard for inclusion in a regular classroom and for the ability to use a letterboard to help them communicate in that classroom? Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right – nonspeaking people deserve access to appropriate education just like everybody else.” Many of us were left with many perplexing and upsetting reflections like this one. We were also left with the motivation to advocate for change and for the implementation of these laws for all nonspeaking people. Monica, an ally and coordinator of S&A, reflected, “As I sat with S&A following DM’s presentation, I had a visceral understanding of why education about one’s rights is a transformative experience.” Divyesh said, “I am thinking about using the laws to support nonspeakers to gain access to Spelling to Communicate in schools and colleges. I want schools and colleges to train all teachers to be communication and regulation partners.“ The ADA was created in response to advocacy efforts of disabled people, such as the Capitol Crawl. The Spellers and Allies Advocacy Network plans to advocate to make access to education and effective communication a reality for all nonspeaking, unreliably speaking, and minimally speaking people.
Special thanks to Dawnmarie Gaivin for coming to speak with the Spellers & Allies Advocacy Network. As Sarah shared, you are a resource and ally!
The I-ASC Spellers & Allies Advocacy Network is a group of spellers and allies between the ages of 18- 30 who advocate together around issues that concern nonspeaking people, such as agency, autonomy, and access. Through public education and advocacy campaigns, we seek to make real change for all nonspeaking people.
Assistive Technology Act: