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Everyone Communicates

In her position as the assistant manager of a local bookstore, my wife Julie is often called upon to help customers with very specific and detailed requests. A few days ago, she was helping a special education teacher from a local high school find books for her class. Or rather, she was trying to help.

It was the third day of school, and this teacher already seemed burned out and surprisingly negative about her students. That was the first thing that Julie noticed. And I get how that can happen on any given day, but I also kind of think that if you’re starting off the semester like that, you might be happier in another line of work. Your students would almost certainly be happier, too. But hey, we’ve all had bad times at work. Julie had no idea if this was this teacher’s normal frame of mind, or if she was just having one of those days.

The thing that was more troubling to her was how this teacher shot down every suggestion with protestations that her students weren’t capable of understanding something at that level. And again, she’s the teacher. She’s certainly more qualified to know what her students can do than the employee of a bookstore, or that employee’s snotty blogging husband, for that matter.

It was her final summation that bothered Julie the most, however. It’s one that bothers me, having heard variations of it for so long, and mostly because it was coming from a teacher in Schuyler’s school district. Ignorance stings hardest when it originates close to home.

“Most of my students are incapable of.”

Have you ever heard that statement come from someone in the disability community? God knows I have, and yet it rarely seems to come from parents. Not the experienced ones, anyway. Perhaps professionals say it because they are trained to approach the issues of disability through metrics, as problems to be solved by way of proven methodology and concrete communication goals. If those goals are challenging enough, there’s a lot of incentive to declare communication to be out of reach.

And I suspect for those in the world who aren’t parents but are also not close family members of the troubled communicator in question, it’s simply a matter of being unaccustomed to looking outside the narrow confines of what we understand, or think we understand, about communication.

The truth is simple. Everyone communicates. Everyone. And when you look at how even those of us with no impairments communicate, you quickly see how those forms of communication can be extremely nuanced. We don’t just “use our words”. We rely on so many subtle cues of facial expression, sound, subtle body shifts. We understand how those different alternative forms of communication work because in our neurotypical, unimpaired world, they feel universal. You could be dropped in a foreign country and still probably manage to find a bathroom or a policeman or a pizza.

It’s when we are faced with the subtle, nonverbal communication tools of the disabled that we find ourselves challenged to learn the language of the land, and learn it quickly and without translation to ease the process. How much easier it is to simply declare communication as unattainable, and to place the blame for that failure at the feet of the disabled.

Communication is there. It exists in the eyes and tiny expressions of anxiety of the profoundly impaired and the paralyzed and even those in persistent vegetative states. Communication exists in the wordless expressions of emotion that we sometimes dismissively call meltdowns. It exists in gestures, in eye gaze, and in alternative expression of language from a differently-wired brain, expression that can feel random and meaningless to us, like word salad, until we allow ourselves to be immersed in it and to be taught by the person to whom it has all the meaning in the world.

Communication isn’t just words, spoken or typed or even pointed to. Communication is expression, not just of comprehensive concepts but also of the basic states of existence. Anger, joy, need, and sometimes just frustration. Sometimes it’s the very simplest of concepts that we’re missing. If you couldn’t or wouldn’t understand my expression of basic needs, I’d have a meltdown, too. I would, and so would you.

Schuyler communicates so successfully now that it’s easy to forget her earliest years a decade ago, when her monster was just being identified and her communication skills were still very primitive. She didn’t have the motor skills for sign language back then, she refused to have anything to do with PECS, and AAC was still a few years in the future. Schuyler communicated at that time with a great physicality; she touched and pulled and pointed, she literally brought us to her needs. And sometimes, when the situation demanded, all she had was an animal howl.

That howl was communication.

This past weekend, we took Schuyler to a local water park. It probably goes without saying that her iPad didn’t come with her. And that’s fine. At thirteen, Schuyler’s verbal communication has been guided by her years of AAC use to the point that she can make herself understood, to us with ease and to the rest of the world with a little patience.

While we were in the big wave pool, waiting for the machine to start churning up the water, an excitable little boy tried to take Schuyler’s big floating tube away from her. She had no words. She couldn’t talk to him with her iPad, even if he’d been willing to wait for her to type out her message, and he certainly wasn’t going to wait to figure out what she was trying to tell him verbally. She was trapped in a moment of communication failure, but only for a moment.

Schuyler took hold of her tube with great conviction. And then she broke out the tool that had once served her so well. She looked into his face and let loose a loud, animalistic howl. He retreated quickly.

That’s my girl.

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