Tag Archives: communication

Working together to Build Communication Access – There’s a communication aid for that!

The Communication Access Group in Bendigo was initiated by Southern Loddon Mallee Regional Communication Service (see our July, September & October blogs) in partnership with Distinctive Options, a day and lifestyle service. But the Group couldn’t have happened without Kharlie, Communication Coordinator and Disability Support Worker!

Kharlie worked closely with the young women in the Group, getting to know them well and supporting them to use communication aids and strategies and to learn about communication access in the community. Kharlie stayed in touch with the Southern Loddon Mallee Regional Communication Service and went to Communication Coordinator Network meetings. Distinctive Options provided time every fortnight for Kharlie to develop communication  aids and resources. The Communication Access Group, and others supported by Distinctive Options, got the benefits.

Here are just some of the things Kharlie developed:

  • Picture based (individual) choice boards
  • Picture and object based shopping lists
  • Picture based what to bring lists to prepare for outings
  • Picture based instructions such as safety in the kitchen
  • Picture based routines such as arrival or washing the dishes
  • Community request cards (shared and individual)
  • Who here photos of everyone (both participants and staff)
  • Picture based activity planner so everyone can plan the details of what will happen and have an accessible way to remember it
  • Picture based story guides for individuals such as a road safety book for one participant

And she’s inspired others:

Now staff include pictures in notices to go home. That means participants have more access to information that concerns them.

Now one member of the Communication Access Group gets resources organised to ensure that staff and participants keep developing more communication strategies.

Over the year, Kharlie’s understanding of communication strategies and contribution to communication access has grown. She will be able to support Distinctive Options to be an even more inclusive and innovative service for participants with little or no speech into the future.

Key Word Sign in Wangaratta

East Hume was treated to an outstanding basic Key Word Sign workshop at the Wangaratta Library in October. Marlene Eksteen, a qualified Key Word Sign Presenter, facilitated the workshop, and 16 people with a broad range of backgrounds, including support workers, day care teachers and parents, attended to further their knowledge of Key Word Sign.

The day incorporated lots of fun and practical activities where everyone was encouraged to practice and refine their signing skills!

‘Would you like a chocolate or a lolly?’ Participants received a yummy reward when they made their request with Key Word Sign!

During the morning we learnt about AAC (Alternative and Augmentative Communication) and its importance for people who have difficulty communicating. Participants were excited to learn how they could use Key Word Sign as a form of AAC.

We learnt about the different stages of communication and how Key Word Sign  can help at every level.

After lunch we attempted to bring on some Christmas cheer in October by learning how to sign ‘We Wish You A Merry Christmas’, which ended in lots of laughs!

We learnt how to finger spell the alphabet, and of course to introduce ourselves by spelling our names.

Participants were also given the opportunity to make their own scripts, which they could take home and practice with their loved ones/clients or other people they support. We also shared these with the group and learnt lots of new signs as we went.

Feedback from the day was resoundingly positive; with everyone saying that they loved the day and found it very relevant, practical and informative.

And we heard some comments that showed just how valuable Marlene’s session was:

“I feel much more confident to use Key Word Sign now – I always thought we could only use it with people who are deaf”

“I work in a disability home, and the staff who use Key Word Sign with the clients often seem to have a better rapport than staff who don’t”

We are looking forward to holding further Key Word Sign workshops in the East Hume region in the near future.

Kelsey and Meredith, East Hume Regional Communication Service







Communication Champions: Changing the Culture of Day Services

Steph Bryce from North West Regional Communication Service interviews Hannah Chalker, Communication Coordinator at Distinctive Options

Photograph of Hannah Chalker, Communication Coordinator at Distinctive Options


How did you get started as a disability support worker?
I’ve known since I was a young child that I wanted to support people with disabilities. As a teenager, I did lots of volunteering, including with Riding Develops Abilities. When I was 18, I completed a Cert IV in Disability. I’d planned to work with kids, but my parents encouraged me to submit my resume to Distinctive Options, and here I am six and a half years later!

How did you end up in the Communication Coordinator role?
The opportunity came up for me to become the Communication Coordinator and it sounded like something I would enjoy. I had studied Auslan, so I have a keen interest in using sign. I have been the role for almost a year. 

What is a Communication Coordinator?
A communication coordinator is a designated person within a disability service provider who is given specific time away from the clients to develop communication aids and strategies for the service (and individuals), to give staff guidance on using AAC and to keep up to date with the latest technology and strategies.

Sometimes I go into programs and model using communication aids with our participants, with both low tech and high tech aids, such as Proloquo2go. I also send out emails with useful resources and information.

I hear that you have an exciting project at the moment!
At the start of the last term, we came up with the idea of having a team of dedicated people who we call ‘Communication Champions’. They are staff members who want to develop their communication skills, really make an effort to use AAC within their programs and model to other staff. We thought it would be good to have different people spread out around the service who feel confident in their AAC skills. There are eleven people in the Champions team.Communication Champions Flyer

What inspired you to do this?
One of my managers felt that we could make communication a higher priority within our service and really wanted to push staff to use AAC more often. That’s where the seed was planted.

What was the aim?
We want communication to become something that we do every day as part of our routine, not something extra. Obviously, it will still take effort to use alternative methods of communication but that’s what our participants need and what we should be providing.

How does the ‘Communication Champions’ project work?
At the moment we have a meeting once a term. Sometimes I’ll send out emails that have more detailed information than I would send to other staff. I try to provide support, asking the champions how they are going with AAC or what they feel like they need more support in. We are just in the beginning stages, so we are still building on the skills of the Communication Champions.

Have you had any good outcomes so far?
One of the Champions came to me the other day telling me about how she used a photo for successful communication. She was trying to get one of our participants to come inside and was using different signs such as ‘stand up’, ‘go’ and ‘bus’ and this wasn’t working. Then she brought out a photo of him at the place they were going to. He responded straight away, stood up and went inside.

The Champions are thinking more about different strategies that can be used and trying other methods of communicating. It’s great to see the different interests within the team emerging. One Champion is passionate about Key Word Sign– she’ll come to me and show me what sign she learnt today. Another Champion who has been there for over 20 years commented that just being a part of this team has inspired her to think differently about communication.

What are your aspirations for this?
I hope in the future that the culture of Distinctive Options will have a bigger focus on communication and that this will be built into everyday routines. I’m going with the flow for now. It would be great if the Champions had more admin time for training and more regular meetings but that is not always possible and this is one of the challenges. But I’m looking forward to seeing this area of our service flourish!

Any final thoughts?
I’m so grateful to be part of the Communication Coordinator Network trained and convened by the North West Regional communication Service. It is great to have that support and to know that Libby and Steph (the two Regional Communication Service speech pathologists) are just a phone call away. Every time I come to a Network meeting, I pick up new pieces of information and ideas and that’s something I really appreciate!


Communication strategies in Corryong

On May 9th Ranelle and Meredith (East Hume Regional Communication Service) met with a group of Year 10 Corryong Secondary College students. The aim of the meeting was provide information about a project that is taking place in Corryong. Corryong is a small country town in the Shire of Towong. The project involves interviewing people with disabilities. This is where the students at Corryong Secondary have been asked to get involved. Their role will be to interview people with disabilities about the positives as well as some of the downsides of life in a small, rural community.  The interviews will be compiled into a short video which will be shared through the Shire of Towong website and other sites.

The speech pathologists from the East Hume Regional Communication Service were involved in teaching students about disability awareness and how best to engage with people who have communication disabilities.

group in library

The importance of positioning

group having discussion

Talking about communication strategies

The students took part in a number of activities that highlighted the importance of positioning, providing context for communicating and some strategies that can help when having a conversation with people who have a communication difficulty. We enjoyed sharing the role of the RCS with such a positive and friendly group of kids and we are looking forward to seeing the finished product.

Ranelle King and Meredith Lane (East Hume RCS)

She understands everything I say…

How many times have we heard this said about people with severe disabilities? As a speech pathologist I often think about how I know if someone understands what I am saying to them and what I need to do if I think they do not.

Why does it matter?

Everyone deserves to be understood and their wishes respected regardless of their ability level. But, how do we really respect someone’s wishes if we do not understand their communication skills and limitations. It is important to remember that not everyone understands speech. I know this can be hard to accept – particularly when the person you are talking to is an adult. But, the reality is, some people with severe disabilities find that understanding speech alone is just too hard. That does not mean we stop talking to people but it does mean being aware of how many other cues we might be using that allows someone to get the gist of what we are saying to them.

car keys

Holding up car keys as a signal to go home is an example of how messages can be understood without the need for speech.

Apparently only 35% of our speech is understood through words alone. Gestures, facial expression, body language, use of pictures and objects actually make up the rest. We know this from our own life experience. How many of us have been to a noisy bar and a friend has motioned a drink gesture and we have nodded in agreement. Or, held up the keys to the car and got the attention of our partner across a crowded room as a signal to go home. The message has been understood without the need for speech.

I have often been in situations where I have questioned whether the person with a severe communication disability has actually understood what has been said to them. A recent example was when I watched an interaction at the end of a meal. The support worker asked the person to take their plate to the sink. They pointed to the plate and then to the sink. Then they beckoned to the person and touched the back of the chair and asked the person if they would like tea, coffee or milo. This time, they got out the teabags, the jar of coffee and the tin of milo. Then, they signed the word spoon and got a spoon out of the drawer and pointed to the fridge and said “Can you get the milk?” Afterwards, the support worker said “See, she understands everything I say.”
I did not think the person understood everything that was said. But, what I saw was a successful interaction based on the use of speech and other cues.

There were a number of cues that helped that situation:

1)         Routine – at the end of a meal we generally take our dirty dishes to the sink

2)         “Do what you usually do in a situation” e.g. sit on the chair that is indicated

3)         Use objects that relate to the activity

4)        Use natural gesture or sign (where the sign visually relates to the concept or object talked about)

5)         Accompany use of objects and gesture with speech. People respond to tone of voice even if they do not understand speech alone

6)         (Do what others do in the same situation – even if you are not sure, following the crowd works more often than not).

I did not see the last cue but I was told that this person will often get their bag and go to the door when they see their peers head off in that direction.

A number of informal and one formal strategy i.e. the use of the Auslan sign “spoon” were used in that brief exchange. And more could have been done in that situation but it would have meant more planning and effort by the more able communication partner.

The options available to help understanding involve either unaided e.g. use of sign and gesture or aided e.g. use of pictures or photos strategies.

Using Key Word Sign (unaided communication) – Using simple sign and gesture with people who have difficulty understanding helps them understand the spoken word by relying on the visual cue of the sign. Teaching and learning simple signs has now been made much easier with the release of the Key Word Sign Australia App. This has access to over 600 line drawings and can be used to create individualised communication resources. It is also possible to attend Key Word Sign workshops to learn basic signing skills. Visit the Key Word Sign Victoria website for details. http://keywordsignvictoria.org/

Using objects and communication aids (aided communication) – If remembering manual signs is difficult, you could use pictures or objects. Scope’s Non-electronic Communication Aid Service develops communication aids, completely individualised to your needs.  (NECAS -http://www.scopevic.org.au/service/necas/) or get the Tools2Talk+ App (http://www.scopevic.org.au/shop/tools2talk-app/ ) and do it yourself.

The person may not understand everything you say but there are many things you can do to make comprehension easier.

By Karen Bloomberg & Hilary Johnson


Using Technology to Communicate

1Being able to communicate is something that most people take for granted. The only experience of relentless communication breakdown most people can relate to is being a tourist in a foreign country. In this situation, gestures and facial expression are often used in the absence of a shared language.

aImagine being in a country where you understood everyone, but no one understood you. Imagine trying to get your message across without the use of mime or gestures. Imagine the frustration you would feel.

For people like Rus, imagination isn’t required. This is their day to day experience.

Luckily, much like for a wildly gesticulating tourist, technology can open many doors to more effective communication for people with communication support needs. Rus has Cerebral Palsy and experiences difficulty controlling his body movements. As a result, his speech can be hard to understand and he is unable to use a keyboard or a phone.

Rus takes advantage of a number of technologies to help him communicate. He uses his computer with the help of a pointer, which he straps to his head. He also has a modified mouse. This allows him to browse the net, send emails and use social media.


Rus using a pointer and modified mouse to operate his computer

With the help of the Inner South Regional Communication Service, Rus has recently received an Allora 2 (a text to speech device) to help people in the community understand him more easily. Since he can’t directly use the keyboard, Rus uses a tread switch, which allows him to control the device using his foot. He types messages which are displayed on the screen and spoken aloud by the device. According to Rus, one of the best features of the Allora is the ability to send and receive text messages. “I like being able to text my family and friends or book a taxi. Before that, I used to get my carer to book a taxi for me. It has changed my life. I can go anywhere in the community and get a taxi. I am more independent, I feel more confident and safer”.

For many, new technologies offer added convenience to their day. For others, technology provides so much more – independence and confidence. In a world where technology is improving at a rapid rate, it is exciting to consider what the future has in store.

By Katrina McNamara

Inner South Regional Communication Service