Ten-year-old Willie arrived at WFC in 1991 with brain damage caused by child abuse. His handsome face graces our brochure folders, and his smile laced with charm goes in for the kill when you meet him. Willie lives in our Supports for Community Living (SCL) and works for Hugh E. Sandefur Industries in the satellite office located on Campus. Willie’s verbal communication consists of one word responses, mostly “yep” and “no.” Occasionally he’ll say a word he hears in a conversation to emphasize his agreement on the topic at hand. Willie uses a Vanguard device – a computer-like communication device offering a variety of picture options for conversation for him to push so he may talk to others. For example, one picture on the screen has the symbol of a person laughing, which is Willie’s jokes button. Willie loves to make people laugh. He chooses this joke symbol with a push of his pointer finger which then offers a variety of jokes to choose from and to tell someone. Each joke or riddle is marked with a “?” on a different color background; and beside each “?” is a picture of people laughing that lets him give the answer. Most pictures on Willie’s communication device offer several conversation options: social, dining out, about me (info such as his address, birthday, favorite things, etc.), basic needs (thirsty, hungry), places to go (bowling alley, mall, etc.), feelings (happy, sad, cold, hot, etc.), family and friends, etc. A speech therapist programs each communication device and its messages for the individual based on his/her skill level, personality, wants, and needs.
In this observation, Kristy Keith, head of our speech therapy department, works with Willie in his practice of functionally using his communication device and to learn the vocabulary or messages on it. She reminds him what each picture symbol represents if he’s struggling to make a selection. Because I’ve just met Willie, Kristy asks him to tell me about himself. Using this device, he must remember which picture on his screen to select, in this case a picture of himself with the words “ABOUT ME” under it. With practice, Willie builds his memory of each picture symbol and what each one means for him to be able to communicate with another person. If you’ve ever played piano, it’s the equivalent to practicing a lot: remembering our hand position; which key represents which note; practicing the scales, and; doing it with such confidence we don’t have to look at our hands. The more Willie works with his communication device, the greater his confidence in using it and thus his ability and willingness to rely on it to communicate with others.
I’ve learned early in my orientation to CORF to let go of all expectations of what I may see or experience, but I’ve also learned therapy can be fun. While Kristy worked with Willie, who at this point is telling me a few jokes, Joey comes into the speech department. Joey is a twenty-one year old preparing to make a move from our Centre Pointe Cottages to a SCL house known on Campus as “the Bachelor Pad.” That in and of itself is a blog chapter for another day! Stoked about his upcoming move and loving life, Joey breaks into his McDonald’s rap for everyone in the department. Willie grins at me as he listens, while the rest of us start smiling and laughing. Willie verbally tells Kristy and me, “crazy”, a “Willie” word meaning funny. Kristy, ever the speech therapist, tells Willie to find on his communication device what he’d say to Joey. She get’s Joey’s attention as Willie tells him via the device, “You’re funny.” Joey eats it up and launches into the McDonald’s rap once again. Our funny bones respond accordingly.
Communication comes in all forms, not just electronically. Bobby, another Campus resident, communicates via sign language, spelling out each word he’s saying, and fast. I dabbled with sign language but cannot keep up with his use of it! John has a chart on his wheelchair tray that also includes the alphabet. Recently, he was asked where he was born. He began to spell out V-E-N-E-Z. . . ., then looks at me as if I should know the rest. I’m thinking there is no such state, and/or he’s misspelling it. I guess Virginia, then Vermont, and his frustration with me mounted. Finally, a Direct Support Provider overhears the conversation and clarifies: he was born in Venezuela! Shazam! I did not know that, and it just goes to show you how I still tend to underestimate these folks. I thought he was misspelling when I was simply clueless! Next time, I’ll ask him or anyone using this communication method to spell it all out.
Speech therapy facilitates communication – to give those they serve a voice the best way possible. One gal named Denise finally found hers after she arrived at Wendell Foster’s Campus. And what an amazing story.
In the Next Blog Entry: Got Voice? - “Imagine you cannot speak. You have NO way to say what you need or want: a drink of water; food; that you hurt. . . . . . Perhaps you use body language . . . but what if you can’t move any part of your body? Meet Denise.”
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