Last night I attended a dinner party at my friend’s house. I continued using a high tech communication aid and basic sign instead of speech.
It was interesting to find how challenging I found communicating in a social group environment. I had to try and gain the attention of the group when I wanted to initiate communication which was sometimes a bit of a challenge. Tactile cues were useful in this regard. Therefore ‘gaining the floor’ was very hard. Often people would know I had something to say when I started tapping on my device so the group would go silent to wait for me to ‘speak’. This felt a bit awkward as we often feel the need to fill gaps in conversation. Using eye contact and other social cues and gestures were also hard as I was concentrating on using the device so it perhaps appeared that I wasn’t interested or attending. I found commenting on another’s story very difficult as I simply did not have the time to make a comment before the topic switched.
Technical challenges with my talker app became apparent. The noisy atmosphere was a difficulty as the volume on my talker app could not compete. I sometimes had to hold up words for people to read. The voice on my talker is very robotic and does not have changeable prosodic features of normal speech. This means features such as speed, rhythm and intonation were all completely lost and some things I ‘said’ sounded unnatural or insincere. I often had to repeat things as it was not easily recognised the first time. Another thing that was lost was my identity though my accent. At one point I used a dialectal word (I am Scottish) unwittingly and it sounded like I had made a mistake on my talker.
One of the strangest things, which was picked up on by my friend, was that people started getting things for me as if I couldn’t do things for myself. Using the talker had made me appear more disabled than I was. I was extremely tired after the dinner party through the constant striving to make myself understood that I fell asleep straight away when i got home.
Today I tried out using AAC in public when I went shopping. I used my talker in a coffee shop to order and had to hand my aid to the server to read as she could not hear it. She accepted this however and did not treat me any differently. I asked another server for milk using sign and she led me to the sugar tray. I resorted to some made up gestures to eventually get my point across. I found that in another shop I had difficulty getting a server to look at me so I could try and gesture. She eventually caught on what I was doing and slowed down to my pace. I found it was a good idea to try signing and gesture as some people respond well to this and could interpret what I needed (especially if they knew BSL/Makaton!) however some people quite naturally got very confused so I went back to using the high tech talker app.
I think that one has to have a great deal of confidence to go out in public and use AAC to strangers, I found it very awkward at first but was heartened by the perseverance which some people showed in interpreting my wants and needs. It has certainly taught me to be imaginative in how I use gesture and body language!