When Speaking Isn’t an Option
The alternatives to vocal communication
Everyone has the right to have his or her voice heard. But for some, it is not as simple as all that; it’s estimated there are around 300,000 people living with mutism in the US, while serious conditions such as autism also have a large impact on the ability to speak. In this article, we will take a look at the major strategies and alternative communication methods employed to deal with mutism, and the pros and cons of each.
American Sign Language (ASL)
The exact beginnings of American Sign Language (ASL) are difficult to pinpoint, but 18th century French sign language (spearheaded by Charles-Michel de l’Épée) was a noteworthy influence, along with various other factors including the use of signing by the Plains Indians and the density of deaf communities in certain areas like Martha’s Vineyard. Today, between 500,000 and 2,000,000 people use sign language across the world, a clear indication of its benefit. Though many mute people are still able to hear, ASL allows them to communicate and respond to what they are hearing through a whole additional vocabulary of signs. Indeed, if users are able to hear, they have the benefit of understanding two variations of the American language (a rare skill). There are advantages too, for friends, family members and teachers who learn ASL-everyday perks such as being able to communicate in an overly-loud venue or conversing with someone when quiet or silence is required. But it goes further than that. On Teachers.net, Paul Fugate says that more than just a new language is being acquired, “For the most part, learning another language also requires you to learn about the culture as well. Deaf culture has a rich heritage, and it reflects tremendous pride.”
However, there is one overriding negative aspect of ASL: compatibility. Though universally-recognized as a language in the USA and Canada, ASL is not an international language. British Sign Language (BSL), for example, is recognized as a fully differentiated language from ASL, even though there are few differences between the two spoken languages. Those who wish to travel and/or communicate with people from overseas cannot rely exclusively on ASL.
Relationship Development Intervention (RDI)
The symptoms of autism are many and varied, but here we will focus on those which disable the ability to speak. An article on “Butterfly Effects” explains that Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) works “through ‘slowing down’ the natural processes of daily life so that children can be taught the ‘steps’ of how such things work.” Feedback from studies of RDI have thus far proved positive; The Evaluation of the Relationship Development Intervention Program found that “children whose families had participated in RDI and who had relatively high IQ at start of treatment showed dramatic changes in diagnostic category on the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) and Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised (ADI-R).”
Yet, like ASL, there are issues with RDI, which mean it isn’t for everyone. Having only been fully established in 2002 as a form of alternative communication, RDI is still a relatively new program, and as yet, there have been no fully independent studies of its benefits. Another issue with RDI is that, unlike ASL, it is aimed solely at children and young people. This is good news for parents with children who suffer from mutism, less so for older people with an inability to speak, such as those who have recently suffered from a cancer of the throat, or have simply never tackled their speechlessness in the past. Finally, RDI-and in a way this applies to ASL too-is not purely focused on aiding mutism: it is a more general strategy.
With a greater understanding of mutism than ever before, there are now alternative communication options like ASL and RDI. Clearly, both of these are major communication strategies with major plaudits, but by borrowing aspects of these, and combining with other methods of communication, mute people can adapt learning to suit them. Synthesized voice programs have come a long way in recent years (there are now quality downloads such as Voice Brief which can be accessed on the iPhone and Android), while programs like Minspeak allow users to get their message across by arranging simple icons into sequence, and thus forming simple sentences.
The everyday act of text messaging has demonstrated an unforeseen blessing for the non-speaking community at large; 75% of young people now text, and the form of communication even has its own pseudo-language, which is understood by many more than will ever learn ASL. A further benefit here is that texting can be done by almost everyone, meaning that those without a voice may well feel less marginalized in using it. Video messaging shatters another boundary which existed when the basic telephone was the key means of communication; both signing and typing can now be performed during a call.
There are further communication alternatives too, like the use of a mechanical larynx, and its successor, the silent speech interface (an electronic lip-reading device). Not every one of these aids will be appropriate for every mute person. But the opportunity to “mix and match” various technologies and strategies means that those with mutism now have the opportunity to communicate and connect on various platforms, sometimes even more so than people who can speak. The voiceless can, and will, be heard.