AAC Awareness Spotlight: AAC & Employment

USSAAC’s Vice-President for People Who Uses AAC & Families, Dr. Tracy Rackensberger, explains why awareness for both AAC and the employment for People with disabilities is so important. This video was created for the University of GeorgiaInstitute on Human Development and Disability.

Hello. My name is Doctor Tracy Rackensperger. I am a public service faculty member at the Institute on Human Development and Disability, University of Georgia. I have over 25 years professional experience working with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities as well as people who use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). I, myself, have developmental disabilities and use AAC.

October happens to be both National Disability Employment Awareness Month and AAC Awareness Month. Given that I work on projects dealing with both employment and AAC, I wanted to talk about the employment of people who use AAC. First though, let me talk about the relevant activities I do as a faculty member. I’m the Resources and Outreach Manager for Advancing Employment. Advancing Employment is dedicated to building a community for inclusive employment in Georgia. It is here where individuals with disabilities, their families, service providers, and others interested in employment can learn and connect with one another.  This Center started from and is mostly funded by a grant from the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities (GCDD). I also am set to direct a project called, Preparing for Employment: An Advancing Employment Initiative. This project is funded by the Craig H. Nielson Foundation. Preparing for Employment has one main goal: to increase the number of Georgians with newly acquired spinal cord injuries access to information and support regarding re-entering the workforce In addition to working on our Advancing Employment projects, I participate in the activities of the RERC on AAC as  Co-Leader of Dissemination and Training  The Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on AAC is a collaborative center committed to advancing knowledge and producing innovative engineering solutions in augmentative and alternative communication.  It is funded by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research, grant number 90REGE0014. Finally, I am the current Vice-President for People Who Use AAC and Their Families for the United States Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication (USSAAC). This organization is dedicated to supporting the needs and rights of people who use Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC). It was established in 1991 as a national chapter of the International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication (ISAAC).

My colleagues at the RERC on AAC at Penn State University have stated in a few articles that more than 95% of individuals with complex communication needs are not employed full-time. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2018, 77% of people with disabilities were not employed full-time. Both these statistics are really dreadful.  However, a 5% full-time unemployment rate means I’m one of the very few people using AAC employed full-time. I should not be one of a few people who earn a good income and reap all the benefits of being financially stable. It’s simple. The more money one acquires through employment, the more choices they have. Everyone should have the same opportunities I have, and even better access to supports and services.

First, let me explain the definition of AAC. Alternative and Augmentative Communication refers to methods of communication that supplement natural speech which is impaired.    Alternative and Augmentative Communication refers to a wide variety of nonverbal techniques used to supplement or augment a person’s oral speech which allows them to use and develop their language.  This information comes from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA). In other words, Augmentative Communication is utilized by individuals whose speech is either difficult to understand or non-existent.  Augmentative Communication methods can range from basic sign language to sophisticated voice-output devices. Low tech augmentative communication methods include natural gestures, sign language, photographs and other kinds of pictures, spelling out words on alphabet displays, and so on.  High tech methods include voice output devices, having either touch screens or static features.  Static features are components that are fixed, such as a keyboard.  Computer based systems have features of a voice output device housed in a regular laptop.  Access methods have come a long way.  Individuals who do not have use of their hands, can operate a communication device with their eyes, heads, or any other body part they have control over. 

Individuals who use AAC find supported and customized employment a successful way to gain meaningful work, real wages, and a means to contribute to the workplace. Customized employment uses the practice of Discovery to uncover an individual’s strengths, interests, task contributions, and conditions of employment to create meaningful work and a customized fit. Rather than looking to work opportunities driven by the market, customized employment practices create employment that fulfills both the applicant with disabilities and the employer’s needs.

We need to reexamine our traditional views of success of people using AAC. People having high expectations of me, as well as Staying person centered, not system centered, and my using natural generic supports as much as possible were and continue to be three of the most important things that shaped my life.

Here are some resources you can check out to find out more about AAC and employment Again, happy National Disability Employment Awareness Month and AAC Awareness Month:

Thank you for reading this blog post. The views expressed in this post are that of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of USSAAC members and board members. No endorsement by USSAAC is implied regarding any device, manufacturer, resource or strategy mentioned. We would love to hear from you. Please share your thoughts with a comment below or send a message through our contact page.

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