Complex Communication Needs and Safety

Philly traffic scene with overlaid words: AAC Community logo and AAC and Safety

The world feels very unpredictable these days. It is urgent, especially under the current circumstances, that we keep our non-speaking adults from having adverse interactions out in the community.  Ongoing unrest may combine with ableist assumptions to make adults with complex communication needs especially vulnerable. 

Protests against the police killing of George Floyd are taking place around the country. At the same time, we see the partial lifting of shelter in place rules.  People are scared and tired. What can we do to keep adult AAC users safe, especially those who are people of color? Here are a few tools to support communication in the community, and hopefully prevent interactions from leading to misunderstanding.

Lanyard with AAC Core Board

When out in the community, folks with limited speech could wear a lanyard with a light tech core board. These communication boards can be glued to a piece of oak tag or thin cardboard. Laminate these or cover them in clear contact paper. Important information about how the individual behaves and communicates, along with contact information, can be placed on the back.

Recordable button on keychain.

As well, a recordable button with a brief message could be attached to the lanyard. These are sold online and can hold up to 30 seconds of digitized speech.  Practice using these quick messages when meeting people out in the community.  Tools such as these can serve as a rapid way to convey the fact that this person communicates differently.  This quick shift in perspective may prove protective, especially if the user is unable to communicate effectively and becomes agitated. 

What if someone has a speech generating device? Hopefully, they have a cross body strap or harness that allows their voice to travel with them. Some quick messages for clarification can be programmed on the home page, “I use this device to communicate, please be patient.” If elopement is a concern, contact information can be added to the homepage as well.

device wallpaper with contact and behavioral information

Don’t forget to make good use of your “Wallpaper”. By wallpaper, we mean the photo on the home screen and lock screen of the AAC device. This can contain a quick phrase clarifying how the person communicates, as well as contact information. Just “wake up” your device and this will be visible. It will be the first thing seen if a first responder tries to interact with the device.

TechOWL Need To Know form image

Emergency medical information can also be printed out and kept in the individual’s wallet.  You can fill out TechOWL’s Need To Know form. While designed for use during hospitalization, this form can be adapted as a general health information tool. It contains a LIfestyle section for information about family, hobbies, and religion. The intent is to ensure that each person is seen for who they are as a unique human being. People with disabilities must have the right to equal access to medical treatment.

health app icon

If the individual has an iPad or iPhone, health information can be recorded as a Medical ID in the health app. This can be checked by first responders. Add a reminder to the device wallpaper to “check my Health app for important information!”.


Core board featuring 60 high frequency words and associated icons. 10 additional words at the bottom feature fringe vocabulary related to COVID-19. TechOWL and Institute on Disabilities at Temple University branding at the bottom of image.

As well, in response to the Covid-19 crisis, TechOWL developed Covid-19 Medical Communication boards.  These can also be downloaded for free. If you are concerned about needing hospitalization, print this board and have a filled out copy of the Need to Know form pinned to the person’s clothes when paramedics arrive. The AAC user will likely be facing hospitalization without supports. Many hospitals have still not resolved how to allow caregivers to remain with the person with a disability in the hospital setting.


Image of Emergency Communication 4 All communication board

TechOWL and Temple University’s Institute on Disabilities have also developed Emergency Communication 4 All boards. These communication boards can be kept in your Go Bag, and can be made part of the emergency planning for group homes and other organizations serving people with CCN.×11.pdf


Go Bag items for AAC List

And most importantly, have a plan. These strategies must be put into place and practiced before they are needed. Take some time to develop steps for your household.  Create a Go Bag that includes your AAC and the following supplies and information:



Kathryn Helland

Kathryn is a certified speech-language pathologist and works with children and adults with complex communication needs. She has been with the TechOWL team since 2015 and is currently working on her doctorate. She would like to examine how to best support AAC users in higher education.

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