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Passivity in Communication

Posted Jul 28, 2021 - 11:34am

By Lance McLemore, PRC-Saltillo Blogger

I’m sure that I have addressed this topic to a limited extent in a previous blog post, but I think it deserves more attention. I have to preface this post by saying that I understand that most people supporting an AAC user have the best of intentions. I understand that most of these people sincerely want an AAC user to communicate at the highest possible level, although I know that’s not always true. Despite the best intentions, people supporting an AAC user do things that disempower that AAC user. They do things that encourage and reward passivity, not just in communication, but in life in general.

I often feel like I have to tell people things that seem patently obvious to me, but it comes as a revelation to them. I try to help people to empathize with AAC users. I must say that I’m displeased with the way AAC users are educated. So many people unintentionally, and sometimes intentionally, teach AAC users to be passive observers in their own lives, and I’m disturbed that so many people see this as good and desirable.

Let’s consider the average child. I assume that most parents want to raise that child to be strong, independent, sure of themselves and what they want, and able to easily and very directly communicate that. Sadly, this is often not how it goes for many AAC users. We are taught to be compliant. We are taught that we are to be seen but not heard, and sometimes not even seen either. We are taught that we are to do as we’re told, and we’re not allowed to object. We’re not allowed to say “no.” What we want is not important. We are patronized, underestimated, and encouraged to defer to other people when decisions have to be made. The contrast is stark and horrifying.

I think one reason this sad state of affairs comes about is due to the way that people engage with AAC users. People ask me what they can do to help AAC users. One suggestion I give is to just talk to us like you would anybody else as much as possible. Unfortunately, that often doesn’t happen. Many AAC users’ days are filled with the most simplistic, repetitive, mind-numbing human interactions. What color is this? What shape is this? What do you want to eat? These are the sorts of interactions AAC users get. I’m not sure I would consider this to be communication, and if it is, it’s only the most rudimentary kind. Try to imagine what it’s like for an AAC user going through the same tiresome interactions day after day. It breeds passivity, dependence, and boredom. I imagine many of them think to themselves, “Okay. If I press this button, this big stupid adult will be happy and leave me alone for a little while.”

If a person were floating around in open space, their organs and muscles would atrophy, and their bones would turn to dust. That’s caused by the lack of gravity. Gravity forces our bodies to resist and overcome it. This makes the body stronger. Normal conversation is to an AAC user what gravity is to everyone. The demands of a normal conversation force AAC users to have stronger communication skills. My suggestion is that rather than inflicting upon them the same trite interactions, keep it more open. What did you do this weekend? How are you feeling today? Do you have any plans for the summer? I believe that open-ended interactions like this will help tremendously, and over time it can lead to them initiating conversation too.

In a previous post I mentioned my early experiences with AAC. I was once very passive too. What helped me more than anything to overcome that was having people have normal conversations with me. It helped me to understand the social rules and eventually to gain the confidence to take a more active role. I’m more confident in giving my opinion now.

The people supporting an AAC user need to know the language system. If they don’t know it, then they can’t model, which leads to less exposure to language, and that leads to a passive communicator. They need to see what their system can really do.

Some AAC users might benefit from instruction on how to have a conversation. Explain to them how to greet, how to keep a conversation going, how to end it, and all the other unwritten social rules that most people know instinctively. It may help them to feel more at ease.

When supporting an AAC user there are some questions I want you to ask yourself.

  1. Am I helping them to become a strong, confident, independent communicator, or am I just teaching them compliance?
  2. Am I asking open-ended questions that are interesting and relevant to them, or am I just always testing them?
  3. Are they prompt dependent?
  4. What can I do to improve the quality of our interaction?
  5. Are they a better communicator now than before they met me?


We want to be active participants in our lives and communities. We want to control our own destiny. And perhaps most importantly, we need to be able to say “no.” We are not livestock that are to be herded around and managed. We are not a nuisance to be squashed and suppressed. We are human beings worthy of respect and to have our autonomy recognized and strengthened if necessary. Do you want to teach us to be obedient slaves or to have a mind of our own? If someone intends to abuse us, do you want us to be able to say “no?” A slave doesn’t say “no.” It doesn’t even occur to a slave that he has the option or the right to say “no” or to get help. A slave knows that his body and life belong to other people. This not what I want for my fellow AAC users. This is not what they deserve. Unfettered communication leads to freedom, and if you thwart that communication, it’s analogous to throwing someone in a prison cell bound and gagged.

I’m sure the reader might think I’m being overly dramatic, but I don’t believe so. I will plead guilty to charges of being provocative and a little confrontational, but I hope the point I’m trying to make is not obscured. I don’t expect people to be perfect. What I am asking for is that people exercise a little self-examination and devise ways that they can improve the lives of AAC users—progress not perfection.

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Communicators In Action   -    aac, communication, passive, implementation, independence,


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