Who We Are
In my classroom, less than 25% of the students use spoken words to communicate. Every single one of them has an amazing personality and unique opinions to share with the world. Communication is one of the foundations of my classroom. My students have vision impairments, hearing impairments, and additional physical and cognitive differences, often labeled as multiple and severe disabilities. We use a combination of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) such as sign language, spoken language, tangible symbols, and picture symbols, often with the support of VOCA (Voice Output Communication Aides) to build communication for the students. My classroom team includes dedicated paraprofessionals, a passionate and talented speech therapist, an energetic hearing teacher, a vision teacher who is blind and shares a unique tactile perspective, an orientation and mobility instructor, an occupational therapist and a physical therapist. The individual expertise and spirit of collaboration have been a crucial component in the inquiry process and implementation of new practices.
Meaningful Learning and Communication
Planning meaningful learning experiences demands a complex understanding of the students’ levels of cognitive development as well as designing learning materials with tactile, auditory, and visual components to support sensory deficits. Within the day-to-day hustle of the classroom, I found that my non-verbal students became reliant on adults in the classroom to engage in communication which often became isolated within the context of instructional activities and limited to academic vocabulary. Imagine relying on another person to be given the opportunity to communicate. What if every topic of conversation was determined by someone else? And limited to what they wanted to teach you? As my students improved in academic domains, they were missing the opportunity to initiate and engage in meaningful, social and academic communication to facilitate self-expression. The Teachers College Inclusive Classroom Project Inquiry-to-Action team provided a powerful space to isolate the challenges needed to overcome communication barriers and transform my students’ classroom experience.
Often times students with strong, and often loud personalities seek our attention in the classroom in lieu of students who are quiet (and in my population, often have limited independent mobility and are non-ambulatory). I decided to focus my inquiry on George, whose quiet and reserved demeanor in the whole class setting contrasted with his engaged and bubbly personality during 1:1 interactions. Despite a delightful, and slightly mischievous sense of humor, George was hesitant to initiate interactions with communication partners, both adults and peers. During instruction, George consistently proved his mastery of new knowledge and skills we presented to him. His intelligence and need for consistent access to a form of communication was evident. Through the inquiry process, I worked to determine an appropriate mode of communication as well as Augmentative and Alternative AC system for George. The impact of this support for communication is evident in the self-determination and confidence he has displayed in his home and school community.
*Student’s name has been changed.