Over the past few years I’ve written about presuming competence as I have come to understand it, ‘here,’ ‘here,’ ‘here,’ and ‘here‘. Over the years my definition continues to shift or, perhaps more accurately I should say, my ability to practice presuming competence continues to shift. I still grapple with whether I am going far enough when I presume competence, though the simplest definition, is also the best one, which is that we presume all human beings are capable of learning if given the right supports and accommodations. But many want to know what that means for a specific person they know or are working with. What are those supports and accommodations?
There are a couple of universal things I have found extremely helpful. (I’m hoping others will add what they’ve found universally helpful as well as specifics that may be particular to just one or two.) The first is being respectful of the person and speaking to them as one would speak to any human being regardless of whether they use spoken language or not. It may take some getting used to, because unlike someone who uses spoken language easily, you may not get a spoken reply, or you may get a spoken response that you cannot make sense of. Either way, I have found, speaking to my daughter (and I’m now talking about before we knew all that she knows and before she was typing with us) as I would any person her age, was critical. Explaining to her what was going on, what was going to happen next, what we would do if something we expected to happen didn’t, and including her in any and all conversations that were taking place in her presence, has been key.
In situations where a meeting is occurring, as might happen during an IEP meeting at school or with a team of therapists or with a doctor and nurse, I have found the single best thing I can do is include her in the conversation. (I have made many mistakes over the years, so please do not interpret this as my suggesting I do all of this perfectly without ever stumbling along the way.) So, for example, when we arrive at the place we are having the meeting, I will speak to her as I would anyone her age. I will ask if she’s comfortable in a particular chair or if she’d prefer sitting in a different one, perhaps away from direct light, or one that might have a cushion. Today I always sit to her right so that I can hold her keyboard for her as she types. I make sure she knows why we are all gathered.
If others begin to speak about her (as they almost always do and will) I will then politely remind them that she is right here and has no issues with her hearing. Emma wrote during one such meeting, “My hearing is excellent.” These days I hold the keyboard for her to write questions she may have or to add whatever she might like. As Emma now types with us daily and is more used to this, she will often initiate a question or comment without me asking her if she wants to add something. But in the past, if the people at the meeting continued to speak about her as though she weren’t present or seemed completely confused by my insistence on including her, (which many undoubtedly will) I might then say something about how hurtful and disrespectful it is to be spoken of in this way and that I’d appreciate it if they would rephrase their language.
If the talk becomes an endless list of deficits I would ask them to identify her many talents and assets and point out that constant criticism is unhelpful and destroys self-confidence and self-esteem. If they are silent (as has happened to us in the past) and seem incapable of naming any assets, I would give them a few opportunities to learn and do better, but at a certain point, professionals should be held accountable for what they are doing and how they are behaving. If after several opportunities, they continue to disregard my daughter and seem incapable of treating her with respect and seem convinced that she cannot understand, they do not deserve to be paid for their “services”.
Another helpful tool is a yes/no laminated card. I used to carry one or several around with me and would ask Emma to verify any yes or no question, because she often says “yes,” but means “no”. I found that what she pointed to with the laminated card, was almost always correct, while the spoken answer wasn’t as much. I have since seen iPhone and iPad apps that people use, which are almost exactly the same as the laminated card I once used. A friend of mine holds up her index fingers from each hand and says, “yes” and gestures with the one index finger, or “no” and then gestures with the other index finger. I remember being shocked that this simple method could produce accurate answers and yet it did. Obviously if there are profound physical issues, this may not be possible, so the laminated card might work better as one can position it so that a large range of physical movement will not be required.