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Total Communication

Updated: Apr 3, 2023

Total communication is not a new concept it evolved from the field of education for the deaf in the 1960s (Schow and Nerbonne 2007). Mueller (2021) defines total communication as including, 'not only speech, signing, gestures, and written language, but also picture communication and voice output communication devices'. For those with profound and multiple disabilities communication is expressed and can be given meaning through people's different vocalisations, body movements and eye movements. People's 'voices' may look and sound different depending on the person, their needs and environment. We need a total communication approach to be integrated into the culture of all schools for a truly inclusive education and society.

Mainstream schools are becoming increasingly diverse in their populations, and it would benefit all children if communication other than speech and the written word was used, valued and recognised more as part of everyday culture. There are infinite ways to learn and communicate, we need a deeper understanding of the many different forms of communication and a deeper understanding and acceptance of how an individuals communication needs may fluctuate through the day depending on the context and other circumstances.

It is wonderful society is now a bit more inclusive, we have various types of screen readers, voice to text recognition, lots of fancy adaptive technology and occasional signing on some TV programmes, but it is not enough. For society to evolve and move forwards we need a total communication approach embedded in all schools too. From the start of a child's learning journey in Early Years teachers need to model and actively promote a total communication approach throughout the day with all children, this needs to be taken out into the playground and home settings too. Children (and their parents) will then learn that total communication is not something 'extra', this is very much how communication works at its core. Everyone deserves to be able to access learning, everyone deserves to be listened to and have a voice, that 'voice' may not be a verbal speaking voice.

Communication needs to be valued in whichever way best suits the individual. We all know there are many ways to communicate, multiple ways to demonstrate understanding, express ideas, share knowledge and learning beyond speech and the written word. However, in mainstream primary schools, the value put on handwriting and being able to stand up and give verbal presentations in front of a class is still held in high esteem beyond all other forms of communication. We need a more flexible approach to demonstrate knowledge and learning outcomes, we need to give the same value to other forms of communication and ensure these are not seen as 'additional' rather it is seen and accepted as a part of a total communication culture.

As I have mentioned in my previous articles such as 'Neurodiversity Affirming Teacher Training Needed', it is important that schools adopt a neurodiversity affirming culture and embrace a neurodivergent friendly environment and practise. As part of this positive inclusive culture, it is equally important that schools adopt a total communication approach to enable everyone to be included and all communication to have equal value.

Total communication needs to be all communication, it is about meeting all needs. In a classroom setting, a total communication approach would mean that teachers would not only communicate using sign language with the few children that may be hearing impaired, rather they would use sign language with the whole class alongside speech, the written word and pictures / symbols (as needed) to support learning and incorporate any other modes of communication. By teachers modelling inclusivity and using a total communication approach in school children will grow up being more inclusive themselves and accepting of all differences and needs.

Total communication means being flexible and adapting approaches and resources to needs. A child may have a hearing impairment and use sign language well in class on a 1:1 basis, this may not mean they are comfortable communicating in front of the whole class or school in an assembly. People have different communication needs depending on the context and their relationships with those around them. We need to respect the needs of everyone's communication preferences. For an Autistic student this may mean that even though you hear them talking fluently with their peers at break time they may not be able to speak verbally in situations they are less comfortable with in class, they will need an alternative means to communicate and participate in these situations.

A total communication approach would mean that teachers wouldn't only use picture timetables for those that need it most, they would display pictures / symbols alongside all work and timetables in class so everyone can understand and participate. We need to be inclusive; it should not be an optional extra for teachers to choose to add onto a lesson plan or a tick list for an inspection, it has to be meaningful for the students you are teaching. Each school, class and lesson may look different but they can all adopt a total communication approach.

Due to individual needs some children will require specific communication aids, they will need something different. Total communication is not about trying to make everyone the same, it is about including everyone and not singling people out, it is about meeting everyone's needs. For example, as teachers we need to ensure that children who are using Augmentative Alternative Communication (AAC) have the correct vocabulary to use in their lessons on their specific devices /communication aids so that they can fully participate and engage. As a teacher you need to plan for this, ensure they have what they need to communicate, learn, and join in.

Total communication is not just about meeting academic needs, I would argue it is even more important for all children to be able to communicate with each other out on the playground in school, out in the parks and on playdates too. Communication is two-way, communication is social, children need to be able to communicate with each other. We need to invest time teaching what inclusivity looks like, specifically teaching and valuing an inclusive total communication environment and culture. Communication aids and resources need to be brought out (or replicated) for the playground and home settings too, we need parents / carers and siblings involved in any changes / reviews and training.

There are many benefits to using a total communication approach:-

  • support understanding and valuing diversity and different ways of communicating

  • support and improve learning outcomes

  • build relationships

  • allow students to engage and demonstrate knowledge and understanding

  • enable sharing of ideas, wants, and needs

  • it will also support and benefit mental health.

Communication is vital to develop relationships and for children to learn how to communicate in a variety of ways to develop relationships with everyone. If we don't teach in an inclusive total communication affirming way, then we cannot expect our children be inclusive as they grow up.

Using sign language, alongside speech, the written word, pictures and any other AAC will mean that 'alternative' communication won't be seen as an 'alternative', it won't be an 'add on' to a lesson plan or an additional barrier for students to overcome. Life is hard enough for many people, not just those with 'additional needs' or diagnosed conditions, everyone can benefit from a total communication approach. It will make everyone's learning more accessible and engage all students in different ways.

Embracing a total communication environment and being more flexible with the communication needs of all your students (and families and staff) not only supports learning outcomes but also supports and enhances relationships, connections, and better mental health.

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