Ten Ways to Presume Competence in Nonspeaking Kids and Adults

As a Registered S2C Practitioner, presuming competence is the heart and soul of what I do every day. But it wasn’t that long ago that the term was unfamiliar to me. I remember with great clarity when I sat down with Elizabeth Vosseller for a bit of “Spelling to Communicate (S2C) 101” training. As a graduate with a degree in Communication Sciences and Disorders, I was listening to her talk about Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area in the brain, and the primary motor cortex. It wasn’t completely unfamiliar to me but it had been a while since I had studied the parts of the brain and a refresher was definitely in order! When I first heard the words “presuming competence” it was explained to me like this…”I don’t expect that you KNOW all of this information, but I presume that you CAN and WANT to learn all of this information.” Of course she was absolutely correct, I was interested in acquiring the knowledge and now I could speak to you about all of these parts of the brain in my sleep! The question is, why wouldn’t we want to grant this same presumption of competence to ANYONE we meet, regardless of whether or not they speak?

Simply put, presuming competence means to assume an individual has the ability to think, learn and understand – and is not required to prove this to us!  It means to assume that the individual is capable – she just needs the right systems and supports in order to help her succeed. So how can we as practitioners, you as parents, and other individuals presume competence in our spellers and nonspeakers? I’m glad you asked!  Here are ten ways to presume competence!

Check Out Presuming Competence Lesson


10 Ways to Presume Competence

#1 Assume that an individual is aware and is able to understand,

even if he is not able to show you his comprehension in a way that you are able to recognize. Assume that he DOES understand when he is being spoken to and of! It’s important to remember that eye-contact and silence are NOT the only indicators of engagement and understanding. As we often say, “listening does not have a look!”

#2 Talk to people normally, in an age-appropriate way.

No one likes being spoken to like a child, unless they are a child! Speak to each individual as you would speak to any other individual that same age. Avoid simplified language and baby-talk, unless of course, you’re speaking to an actual baby!

#3 Include nonspeaking people in the conversation.

Never speak in front of someone as if she is not right there.  Directly address the person you are talking to, instead of going through another individual. If you are a parent or a practitioner, encourage others to speak directly to your child or to your student. Sometimes even just modeling this behavior is enough to encourage others to think about and change the way they address individuals who have a disability!

#4 Allow time and space for nonspeakers to participate in group conversations.

For spellers, have a letterboard handy and give them the opportunity to contribute to the conversation! Be patient and quiet as the person spells his message. I was working with a student just yesterday who said, “One thing that really makes my day is when people take the time to have a conversation with me!”

#5 Present age-appropriate content.

Language, educational content, and books should be at age level. We refer to this as, “Feeding the brain!”  You do not learn new things if you are not exposed to new things! Pressed for time? I highly recommend audiobooks, podcasts, TedTalks, video classes online such as Khan Academy, and YouTube classes like Crash Course!

#6 Practice communication often. 

For those of you working with your speller on the letterboard or other forms of AAC, take the time to practice their communication skills as often as possible. Practice makes PERMANENT! Believe, and project your belief, that she is capable of mastering the motor skills to communicate. It’s not a rush to the finish line – slow and steady often wins the race. Parents, even if you practice for ten minutes a day, you will still be developing those good communication skills. Progress will come and we bet your speller will thank you for it!

#7 Teach and use robust vocabulary.

Don’t withhold information or shy away from rich, age-level vocabulary. Use the same language and vocabulary you would for any other person of the same age! We all expand our vocabulary from exposure to new words.  If you think this may be a new word – define it, just like you would for any other conversation partner.

#8 Avoid interpreting what your speller is communicating to you! 

If a statement is unclear, ask the individual to tell you again or to elaborate. With my students who spell to communicate, occasionally someone will say, “Oh, they mean this!” However I am merely the “mailman” – delivering the letters exactly as they have been presented to me! I would not interpret what you have said to mean anything other than what you said! Ask for clarification or elaboration if you don’t understand.

#9 Presume competence in the BODY of the individual!

This is a big one for our students. For example, you may not yet be able to adjust your body into the perfect spelling position, push in your chair, or put the letterboard back after our session, but I believe you CAN do it, and I will support you by breaking down the tasks and coaching those steps no matter how long it takes. Through patience and practice I believe you  can master these skills! Parents, encourage your child to attempt difficult tasks like making the bed or making a sandwich, but offer coaching, patience and support to help them succeed. Celebrate every small victory along the way!

#10 Support opportunities for your spellers to develop friendships!

In the immortal words of The Beatles, “I get by with a little help from my friends.” We ALL need friendships, and nonspeaking people are no different. Assume that friendships are meaningful and support opportunities to develop them. At our center, we offer our nonspeakers opportunities to learn in groups as well opportunities to develop friendships and motor skills – like our games group and painting class. Online classes help bridge distance and allow spellers from all over the world to connect!  Find opportunities for your student or child to develop friendships!

Challenge! Challenge! Challenge!

Check Out Presuming Competence Lesson

By Kelly Berg, I-ASC Leadership

Cadre & S2C Practitioner



Websites where I did some of my research…

Presuming Competence: What Is It and Why Is It Important?

Presuming Competence: What It Is, What It Looks Like

“Presume Competence” – What Does That Mean Exactly?

The mission of I-ASC is to advance communication access for nonspeaking individuals globally through trainingeducationadvocacy and research I-ASC supports all forms of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) with a focus on methods of spelling and typing. I-ASC currently offers Practitioner training in Spelling to Communicate (S2C) with the hope that other methods of AAC using spelling or typing will join our association.

One response to “Ten Ways to Presume Competence in Nonspeaking Kids and Adults”

  1. age appropriateness is relative. It can be considered ableist. People like what they like reguardless of age

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