This year, October feels especially important. The US is getting ready for the presidential election and people with disabilities are looking for ways to vote safely during a pandemic. We continue to grapple with the challenges posed by racial inequity.
AAC Awareness Month is a good time to look at the demographics surrounding race, ethnicity and AAC device use. After all, disabilities cross racial, ethnic, and gender lines. But speech generating devices can be expensive. Do people with lower socioeconomic status have equitable access to AAC?
It quickly became clear that a Google Scholar search was not going to get me much demographic data on this subject. Binger and Light (2006) wrote about the demographics of preschool children needing AAC. They determined that 12% of preschool children receiving special education services could benefit from some form of augmentative and alternative communication. These students came from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.
In a poster presentation at the American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA) conference in 2016, Binger, et al. found that a small minority of K-12 students with highly unintelligible speech had been seen by an AAC expert.
I have not yet found any research on the demographics of overall access to AAC systems. Of the research I did find, some focused on cultural competence and the teaching of communication partner skills (Soto, 2012). One dissertation examined the social and cultural implications of AAC device implementation for African Americans (Davis 2005).
We don’t know enough about the provision of AAC devices and services across racial and cultural groups. Our field should be responsive to any disparities that exist. We cannot do this without data. We do know that people of color are almost twice as likely as white Americans to live in poverty. My personal experience would seem to indicate that income levels have a large influence on who receives access to AAC. We need to know more.
As well, AAC devices need to better reflect the racial, linguistic, and cultural diversity of this country. Our diversity is one of our great strengths. Fortunately, good progress has been made on this front. The Symbol Stix figures in the TouchChat and Proloquo2Go apps can now easily be edited for skin color. Go directly to the in-app settings and select the skin tone that best represents the AAC user. Assistiveware, PRC-Saltillo, and Tobii are also working to add African American English (AAE) voices to their Acapela synthesized voice options. These are important steps forward.
During this AAC Awareness Month, let us focus on diversity. What can we do to ensure that we are providing access to AAC for all those who need it? It is time to honor the full range of voices that can and should be heard.
And let’s make sure that adult AAC users are registered and have the opportunity to vote! See you at the ballot box.
Binger, C., *Bickley, N., & *Babej, E. (2016, November). School-age Children with Highly Unintelligible Speech: A New Mexico Survey. Poster presented at the annual conference of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, Philadelphia, PA.
Binger, C., Kent-Walsh, J., Berens, J., Del Campo, S., & Rivera, D. (2008). Teaching Latino parents to support the multi-symbol message productions of their children who require AAC. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 24(4), 323-338. https://doi.org/10.1080/07434610802130978
Binger, C., & Light, J. (2006). Demographics of Preschoolers Who Require AAC. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 37(3), 200–208. https://doi.org/10.1044/0161-1461(2006/022)
US Census Bureau. (2019, September 10). Income and poverty in the United States: 2018. The United States Census Bureau. https://www.census.gov/library/publications/2019/demo/p60-266.html
Your voice matters: Calling for the first African American English digital voices. (n.d.). Acapela Group. https://www.acapela-group.com/news/first-african-american-english-digital-voices/
Parette, P., & Huer, M. B. (2002). Working with Asian American families whose children have augmentative and alternative communication needs. Journal of Special Education Technology, 17(4), 5-13. https://doi.org/10.1177/016264340201700401
Soto, G. (2012). Training partners in AAC in culturally diverse families. Perspectives on Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 21(4), 144-150. https://doi.org/10.1044/aac21.4.144
Soto, G., & Yu, B. (2014). Considerations for the provision of services to bilingual children who use augmentative and alternative communication. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 30, 83–92. doi:10.3109/07434618.2013.878751