Using AAC Devices in the Workplace

"Hello, I’m here for work."   Letting your (non-verbal) student do all the talking.

Talking to your boss can be difficult, right? Maybe she always seems to have too much going on to take the time to chat. Maybe she is all business all the time, and you are more of a casual conversationalist. Or maybe, standard modes of communication are simply not in your repertoire. The latter is the case for many students in the Deafblind program. Working on communication with a non-verbal student can be challenging, and sometimes even more so when other physical or cognitive disabilities are present. With a little bit of planning and a shift in focus from your student's disabilities to their fantastic abilities, strong relationships with employers, as well as rewarding jobs for your students, may be easier to develop than you think.

Communication Tools in the Workplace

A boy sitting in a wheelchair with a communication device

Some of the things that we use regularly are alternative augmentative communication systems or devices. These can be as simple as a one button switch that will play a pre-recorded message like “Hi, I’m here to do my work”, or as complex as an iPad with many different topic groups and pages to choose from. As with so many factors when it comes to work placements, consistency is key here, as a boss or community contact person will grow more and more accustomed to seeing your student using whatever system works best for them each time they come to work. Sure, someone may seem a little thrown off by a communication switch the first few times, but more often than not we see people in the community comment immediately if a communication device is missing - perhaps charging or being updated at school. In these situations, a simple wave or a smile will get the job done, but the next time that device is there, you will see how very normal and integrated it has become. This transition from conversation piece to conversational tool will likely make your student and his boss feel great about the connection they have made and the work they are able to share. 

Showing Off Workskills

So, now that your student has his or her boss’s attention, it’s time to show off those work skills. Like the communication piece, the tasks that you set up for your student to take responsibility for will quickly become expected and immediately be appreciated. Keep in mind that there is almost always something that your student can do to help out. If you are working in an office, ask if they have any plants that need watering. If they don’t, ask if they would like one or two! My students regularly empty recycling barrels and change trash bags, but every workplace will have different needs. One of the most amazing things about showing an employer what your students are capable of is when that employer comes up with a job on their own that your student can help with. I have seen many employers go from head scratching over the thought of a student with deafblindness and multiple disabilities being able to do any work, to going out of their way to make sure that activities are put aside and set up every time that student comes in. 

Finding Out What Works and What Doesn't

Of course, this all starts with trying different types of tasks to see what works and what doesn’t. What does your student seem to like? Are they better doing seated tasks or traveling through an environment for work? Do they like extremely repetitive tasks that could be a great help in a workplace, or do they need a bit more variety to stay on task? Paying attention to the likes of your students will pay off when you are setting them up with a job placement and individual task within that placement. 

With careful planning, attention to student likes and dislikes and a little bit of persistence, you and your students can change mindsets from “what can this student do for me” to “what did we ever do without them?”  

AAC devices in the workplace collage