Communication and water have a lot in common. Both are found everywhere in the world, they are plentiful, and they are a part of the fabric of every day life. People use them freely and pay little attention to their nature and consequence. And, both are taken for granted until such a time that we lose them. Only then do we realize how important they really are.
Most of us learn to communicate without conscious effort, not realizing that the acquisition of communication skills is a highly complex task, requiring extensive integration of hearing, mental processes, and motor skills. While language develops within the individual, it is shaped into the very personal act it is by the people with whom we interact.
Unfortunately, however, not everyone possesses the easy communication system which most of us enjoy. Persons whose communication system does not permit them to interact easily with others are said to have communication disorders.
The term "disorders" leaves something to be desired. The word "disorder" has a negative connotation and suggests the individuals are somehow deficient. Also, the act of communication is a two way process. If communication does not occur as it should, the disruption is in the process, not the individual. Communication disorders exist only if the communication act between two or more individuals is disrupted.
Let’s assume the perspective that a communication “disorder” is actually a communication system that is simply "different.” If the people interacting with the individual with a communication system that is “different” understand the difference, and make accommodations for it, then there is no disruption of the communication process. The “disorder” has been eliminated and the communication system is simply “different.” Acts of communication that are different need not interfere with the communication process.
Let me use an example. Suppose an individual has a communication system that does not permit that individual to formulate and speak words at a normal rate. Such a problem might be one of speech, language, hearing, or fluency. Let's consider two scenario's for this individual. In the first, the individual goes into a fast-food establishment and begins to order. The time required to complete the order is much longer than normal and the clerk wants to move the communication along. The clerk may say something to indicate a desire for the person to hurry (such as "hurry up, we ain't got all day"). Or, the clerk may not say anything, but make a facial expression that indicates impatience (such as rolling eyes, smirking, etc). Or the clerk may turn to a friend of speaker and say "would you like to order for your friend?" The reaction of the clerk defined the act as "disordered" in that it implied there was a problem with the speaker's communication system.
In the second scenario, the clerk waits for the speaker with a slower communication rate to complete the act of communication and treats the speaker as any other customer. The speaker completes the process and the clerk gets the message without any attention being drawn to the time it took for the person to complete the act communication. There is no "disorder" in this situation, as both parties did what was needed to communicate. Thus, the communication process in this situation, while different, was not disordered because neither the speaker nor listener defined it as such.
That is the purpose of this book--to help you, the reader, understand the feelings of persons whose communication systems are different. Understanding the feelings of persons with communication differences will help you know what it is like to have a communication difference, and this in turn will help you understand how to interact more effectively and comfortably with persons with communication differences. You will become the agent who can make their communication "disorder" simply a "difference."
I will use both the terms “communication difference” and “communication disorder” in this book to describe any communication system that requires adjustments on the part of individuals interacting with the person whose communication system is different. I will use “communication disorder” when referencing the perspective of other authors. However, I believe the preferred term is “communication difference.” We all have different communication systems and often our “normal” communication systems require those interacting with us to make adjustments.
Another reason for using the term “communication difference” is that most persons with communication differences do not like terms such as “disorder or “handicap”. They want to be perceived, and treated, as “normal” persons who have a characteristic that makes them unique. Persons interacting with individuals with communication differences can adjust to that difference and make the communication process “normal.”
The term communication difference also has the advantage that it avoids suggesting individuals with communication differences are inferior or disabled. And if we accommodate to communication differences of others, they will, in fact, not be made to feel inferior or disabled. Persons with communication differences will feel uncomfortable only if those with whom they interact do not make the necessary adjustments.
There are games you can play to determine just how important communication is to you. One is to try to get through a day without communication. Choose the day ahead of time and make a note that you will see when you get up to remind you not to communicate any more times than you feel it is absolutely necessary. Count the number of hours you are able to continue without communicating and count the number of times you felt it necessary to communicate. Keep a diary during the day to record your feelings. Read the diary at the end of the experience and consider the importance of communication in your daily life.
Next, get a group of three-to-five people together and communicate without the spoken or written word. Use no speech or written communication. That includes letters, mathematic symbols and numbers.
Have the group find out as much about each other as possible without using spoken or written words. Mimicry, gesturing, facial expression, and drawing are allowed. See how much of the following information can be gained from the group by posing them following questions (the questions are to be read, no words after the question has been presented):
See how much you can learn about the others in your group without using words, spoken or written. At the end of the activity, write a paragraph on how you felt while trying to communicate without words. Did you feel any frustration? What did members of your group do to communicate? How long did it take to communicate the information? Compare the amount of time the exercise took compared to the time it would take to gain the same information using spoken communication. Think about how persons must feel who have to face this struggle daily.
It is hard to imagine our world without communication. Pretend for a moment that you have lost 50 percent of your ability to speak and 50 percent of your ability to understand the speech of others. How would it affect your life? How would it affect your academic efforts? Would you be able to pass every class, some classes, or no class? Would you be able to get through any level of schooling? Think - if you only understood every other word the instructor in your classes said, would you be able to handle it? How often would you ask questions or otherwise respond in class if you knew that your listeners would only understand half of what you said? Consider these questions as they apply through all of formal education. How would communication differences affect your achievements in education?
Figure one is four versions of an anecdote from Reader's Digest. Cover the last three (being careful not to read them) and read the first one. It contains every fourth word, or 25 percent of the content. Almost nothing can be understood.
Now uncover the second passage. Every other word, or 50 percent of the message is contained in this one. You will note that still very little can be gained from 50 percent of a message. Now uncover the third and read it. It contains three of four words, or seventy-five percent. How much more did you get this time? Now read the last, which has all of the words.
You probably understood the humor of the passage only when you read the version with all the words.This exercise should give you an idea of how great a percent of a message you need to receive to understand the content. Sometimes people think that a "25 percent loss" doesn't sound too bad. However, you can tell from the above exercise that any loss in content has a significant impact on understanding. What percent loss do you think you could have and still be able to complete a college degree?
How would communication differences affect your career choices? What kind of jobs would you be able to do if you only had 50 percent of the communication skills that you now have?
There once were a good many employment opportunities that did not require extensive communication. Early in the 20th century our society was largely agrarian and industrial. Neither area had jobs which required high level communication skills. A person working on a farm or in a factory doing manual labor may have needed little in the way of communication skills. If you are plowing a field all day, or operating a machine, communication plays a very limited role.
However, society has shifted rapidly from agrarian and industrial to service and information. Service and information employment almost without exception requires people to communicate.
When -- ------- --- I ------- -- ---- a --- --- ----- to ------ -- ----- family, --------- ---- many ------ ---------- ---- with ------------. ----- ------- calls - ------------ a ----- ----- ----- if --- ------- --- any ------------ -------- its ------ ---- --- of -------. ----- - bewildered -----, --- -------, "Well...--- ---- -- bring -- ----."
When -- husband --- I ------- to ---- a --- and ----- to ------ to ----- family, -- discovered ---- many ------ agreements ---- with ------------. After -------- calls - wearily ----- a ----- young ----- if --- company --- any ------------ on ------ its ------ cars --- of -----. After - bewildered -----, she -------, "---- ...you ---- to ----- it ----."
When my husband --- I decided to ---- a car and ----- to Oregon to ----- family, we discovered ---- many rental agreements ---- with restrictions. After ------- calls, I wearily ----- a sweet young ----- if her company --- any restrictions on ------ its rental cars --- of state. After - bewildered pause, she -------, "Well...you have -- bring it back."
When my husband and I decided to rent a car and drive to Oregon to visit family, we discovered that many rental agreements come with restrictions. After several call, I wearily asked a sweet young agent if her company had any restrictions on taking its rental cars out of state. After a bewildered pause, she replied, "Well...you have to bring it back."
Following -- --- ----, my ------ ---- -- a ------------ --- -------. Unwilling -- ---- -------, I ---------- --- ---- for -- ------------ I ----- --- --- glasses -- - ----- date. ----- ---- --- doctor ------ -- - quarter. "-- --- ------ not -- --- -------," he ----, "------ --------- me --- ---- ---- you ---- on ------- -- ---- I --- ---- -- wife --- ---- --- to --- --- -------- off --- ------." - got --- -------.
Following -- eye ----, my ------ gave -- a ------------ for -------. Unwilling -- face -------, I ---------- the ---- for -- and --------- I ----- get --- glasses -- a ----- date. ----- away --- doctor ------ me - quarter. "-- you ------ not -- get -------," he ----, "please --------- me --- next ---- you ---- on ------- so ---- I --- call -- wife --- tell --- to --- our -------- off --- street." - got --- glasses.
Following an eye ----, my doctor gave -- a prescription for -------. Unwilling to face -------, I questioned the ---- for it and --------- I might get --- glasses at a ----- date. Right away --- doctor handed me - quarter. "If you ------ not to get -------," he said, "please --------- me the next ---- you plan on ------- so that I --- call my wife --- tell her to --- our children off --- street." I got --- glasses.
Following an eye exam, my doctor gave me a prescription for glasses. Unwilling to face reality, I questioned the need for it and suggested I might get the glasses at a later date. Right away the doctor handed me a quarter. "If you decide not to get glasses," he said, "please telephone me the next time you plan on driving so that I can call my wife and tell her to get our children off the street." I got the glasses. (From Reader's Digest)
Communication is more highly prized as a job skill now than ever. And that is not likely to change. Imagine trying to compete in the current job market with less than your present communication skills. Think how individuals with communication differences must feel when they go to job interviews, realizing that others who are interviewing for the position have better communication skills. How would you feel being the person who interviews an individual with a communication difference? How much allowance would you make for the communication difference, if any?
Conducting any form of business would present a comparable challenge. Many of us who have been exposed to the American tradition of automobile salesmanship consider purchasing a car among the most anxiety producing experiences an individual can undertake. First of all, you normally deal with at least two, and sometimes as many as four, different levels of sales persons/managers. Both the sales person and the buyer realize that the price of a car is negotiable. Buyers who are trying to get the most for the money will generally not accept the first, or maybe not even the second and third offers. Words are carefully chosen by each party to influence the other. In at least 50% of the car transactions in which I have been involved, there is a last minute item that the sales person forgot to mention, or some error in arithmetic that always results in an increase in the price of the car. The way the buyer communicates his response to this situation is critical to the conclusion of the sale. The sales person wants to sell the car and the buyer wants to buy the car so the intents are clear. However, the means to the final resolution of what the price may be a circuitous communication route.
A few years ago I tried to explain the process of purchasing a car to an individual from China. The person had enrolled in a program to improve the intelligibility of her spoken English, but all sorts of language/cultural questions arose in our interaction. It took longer and was much more difficult to explain the verbal interaction that takes place in car buying than any other topic we discussed. We felt pretty good when she demonstrated understanding of the concept involved in buying a car, but then we moved on to what is involved in getting a loan to purchase the car and that proved equally challenging.
Communication as a part of the everyday process of living encompasses an enormous range of possibilities. One of the most anxiety-provoking situations is being stopped by a policeman.
We're all a little nervous when stopped by the police, but those with a communication difference have much more cause to be nervous. I have had several deaf people relate frightening encounters with police. The usual assumption by the police appears to be that if people have impaired communication, they are either mentally deficient, mentally imbalanced, or under the influence of alcohol/drugs. One deaf person reported being scared out his wits by a policeman who pulled him over. The deaf person sat for a minute trying to think what he might have done wrong. When he turned to the window, the policeman had his gun drawn. Evidently the policeman approached from the rear and asked the driver to get out of the car. The driver didn't hear, so he didn't respond. Not realizing the problem, and not wanting to take any chances, the policeman pulled his gun. It was only when the driver looked him directly in the face and was able to read his lips that he knew what was expected.
Many deaf people carry some kind of printed note indicating they are deaf to be presented in just such situations. Imagine yourself in that situation. The policeman was just doing what seemed necessary, but with a devastating effect on the driver. The person relating this incident to me said that he sat in his car shaking for several minutes after the policeman left. That's what it can be like to have a communication difference.
Other matters which are not quite so dramatic, but nonetheless important to daily living, such as banking, questioning a telephone bill, having utilities turned on, etc., require a much higher level of communication skills than most people realize. Think of trying to give, or receive, directions from one place to another with gaps in the communication process. These are situations that can be 'challenging' even to those of us who don't have communication differences. Imagine dealing with these situations with less than adequate communication skills.
The area of daily living that would be affected most, even if an individual could get an education and a job, would be the social scene. Going to a restaurant and ordering a meal is a simple task for most people. However, imagine going to a restaurant and ordering, knowing that those who serve you will have difficulty understanding you, or that they will look away when you begin talking.
Shopping takes on a different perspective if you know people are going to treat you differently when they hear you speak. Most people with communication differences avoid speaking in these settings. How far would you go to avoid being embarrassed by impaired communication skills in a public place?
Social situations are probably where differences in communication skills are most noticeable. The simple act of meeting someone can be a trial. Introductions are a little uncomfortable for many of us who have 'normal' communication skills. Consider how the person with a communication difference might feel in that situation. The anxiety that people with 'normal' communication skills feel is magnified greatly for the person with a communication difference.
Parties and other social get-togethers provide similar problems. We are social animals in that we like to spend time with other people. When we enter into any social scene, most of us feel some degree of trepidation. Will we find anyone with whom to talk? Will we make a good impression? Will it be fun, or will we end up regretting the experience? In other words, most social experiences entail some degree of risk.
This risk is greatly increased for the person with a communication difference. Those insensitive to persons with a communication difference may say things or act in ways that will make the person with the difference feel any where on a continuum from uncomfortable, to out of place, to downright inferior. Communication differences may be mistaken for mental differences, psychological differences, and a variety of other causes which reflect negatively on the individual. The fact is that most persons with communication differences have normal intelligence, normal psychological functioning, and personalities that are every bit as engaging as any other person, once the individual becomes the focus of attention, and not the communication difference.
How would a communication difference affect your social life? Would you go to the same social functions that you now attend? Or would you pick only the ones at which you feel safe? Persons with communication differences often opt for limited social situations. The loss of social interaction is often one of the most distressing aspects of having a communication difference.
Change in the life of an older person with a hearing loss is a good example of the limitations imposed by communication differences. As older people lose their hearing, they are less likely to attend social functions. They often cannot follow the conversation and may embarrass themselves by the answer they give to a question they misunderstood. The social life of the individual becomes a cycle of diminishing associations. The fewer opportunities they have to interact, the less skillful they are at dealing with situations. By the time many older persons are finally fitted with hearing aids, they have already lost a great many social contacts.
Social skills and interpersonal skills go hand-in-hand. Establishing satisfying, long term relationships requires that people share themselves and their experiences. Communication is a critical aspect of any personal relationship, so the person, with a communication difference starts at a disadvantage. One of the most common complaints from persons with normal communication skills involved in long term relationships is "we don't communicate like we used to." Think how that is exaggerated when one or both persons in a relationship have a communication difference.
Imagine yourself with the 50 percent loss of communication skills; listeners understand only half what you say and you understand only half what they say. Imagine trying to initiate a conversation with a member of the opposite sex. Male-female relationships are “challenging” enough when there are no other problems with which to deal. Imagine trying to establish a relationship when you know that you are going to have to “guess” at half of what the other person says, and that person is going to have to guess at half of what you say. The misunderstandings that could occur under such circumstances are mind-boggling!
Perhaps one of the most helpful ways to look at communication is to think of it as part of your appearance, just like the way you dress, fix your hair and use cosmetics. It is an outward manifestation of the individual. And just as the quality of grooming and the acceptability of clothing can instantly create a positive or negative impressive, so can communication skills. It is not uncommon for someone to say "s/he was really attractive, until s/he opened her mouth."
Most of us are aware of the importance of speech when we are trying to make a good impression. We will take an extra moment to pause so that we can structure a response to the best advantage. Even taking the extra moment, persons with a communication difference will find there is a problem with appearance as soon as they speak. Perhaps you have had the experience of observing someone who, by all outward appearances, looked normal. Then the person spoke with a communication difference (slurred speech, stuttering, etc.) and you were surprised. Because the person 'looked' normal, you assumed the person would speak normally. Whether or not your reaction was positive or negative, the fact that there was a reaction suggests that you probably talked differently to the person than if there had been no communication difference.
Helen Keller is probably one of the most famous communication handicapped individuals of all time (Brooks, 1956). She was deaf and she was also blind. When asked which of the two handicaps was greater, she had no hesitation in stating that deafness was. The reason she gave was that deafness interfered with communication with others. And contact with people was the most important part of her life.
Communication is also central to the social fabric of a family. The family provides the setting for the most basic, enduring relationships most of us establish. Being a part of a family does not come easily, however. Families are subject to stresses as a unit, much in the same way as individuals in that family are subjected to stress. Illness, loss or change of employment by a family member, and moving are major stress times for a family.
A move is a common example of a situation that puts stress on the family as a unit, and all of the individuals in the unit. Each member of the family has to establish new social ties as individuals. In addition, the family as a unit seeks to establish ties with other family units.
This is a difficult adjustment period. As family members establish new social links, they want to have the approval of the other family members. As they meet other families with whom they will socialize as a unit, they have to each accept the other family. Communication is the medium through which they resolve questions. Mother may be heard to say things such as "Do you like the boy down the street who is about your age?" "I met one of our neighbors at the grocery store today. I think I'll invite her over for coffee." "Why don't we invite the family next door for dinner next week?" Dad's communication units will be similar. "Met a great guy at the office. We're playing golf this weekend." "One of my co-workers have kids about the age of ours. We ought to have them over." "The fellow in the office next to mine just moved here a few months ago. He said his wife hasn't made many friends yet. Would you like to meet her?" The kids contribute things such as: "I met a great kid in social studies class. Can he stay over with me Friday night?" "Have you met the family down the street? They are really neat."
Examine the content and you can see that the family members are communicating some basic messages beyond the meaning of the words. First, they are indicating to each other that they are trying to establish new relationships. The family as a unit needs to know that each of the other family members is going to be all right with the move. The family members are assuring each other that things are all right by expressing their intent to make new friends. Secondly, they are seeking the approval of the other family members for the new acquaintance. Even though the rest of the family has no knowledge of the new friends the others are talking about, they will generally be reassuring and encourage the development of friendships. Finally, they are trying to identify persons with whom the other family members can establish ties, and suggest other families with whom they might socialize as a unit.
During the adjustment period in a move, all members of the family need to be reassuring to one another. Communication is the primary channel through which this occurs. The family situation described above is the 'ideal' one. The communication units suggest a positive and active attitude toward establishing ties. Often this is not the case. One or more members of the family may have not have been in favor of the move. If they communicate negative feelings to the others, it creates greater stress on both the individuals and the family as a unit. A situation that is stressful will be made even more so. Until all members of the family have readjusted to the new setting, the family as a unit will continue to feel the stress.
Add to this situation a family member with a communication difference. The person with a communication difference is going to have more trouble establishing ties. The individual will also have more difficulty providing the support needed for the other family members. Imagine yourself a 16 year-old in a family that has just made a move. You have a 14 year-old sibling whose speech is difficult to understand. As you become a part of the new neighborhood and new school, will you feel more stress than if the 14 year-old had normal speech? What kind of things would you have to deal with that you wouldn't otherwise? Will you have to explain to others why the sibling's speech is poor? Will it reflect negatively on you and the family? Will you feel obligated to do more for your sibling? Will you protect the family from things that might be said, absorbing the negativity yourself? Or will you share it with them?
I chose the example of moving, and the part that communication skills play in the adjustment of the family, because I have known many families whose moves have been greatly influenced by the fact that one member of the family had a communication difference. It is difficult for a family who lives in a community in which they are known and liked, and where the family member with the communication difference is accepted and has an established circle of friends, to make a move. Many adults with family members who have communication differences pass up promotions and choice work assignments to avoid the potential for a negative experience for the family. On the other hand, some families seek moves if they live in communities in which the family member with the communication difference is not well accepted, or in which special services, such as educational opportunities, may not be available.
The choices made by well-functioning families are made with concern for all family members. The choices are complicated when there is a family member who will likely be more affected than the others. The family who includes a member with a communication difference will be especially cautious. That family realizes that the stresses will be magnified, and will have to be distributed throughout the family.
Which leads us to the conclusion that communication differences not only present challenges for the individual, but for the family as well. The degree to which the family will be affected is directly related to the severity of the difference. The strength of family bonds will be sorely tested as the family members cope with the communication difference. Families can be stronger for having had the experience of having a person with a communication difference among them. On the other hand, families may be torn apart. Divorce and sibling problems are higher in families with communication differences than in families without similar difficulties.
As you might expect, beliefs play a large role in the acceptance of individuals with a communication differences, especially children. The faith, or religious practices, of a group may strongly influence the family. In the 1960s I helped develop a communication differences program for a hospital for crippled children in the Southwestern part of the United States. The primary focus of the program was children with neurological handicaps, the greatest percentage of whom were cerebral palsied.
Religious beliefs had a profound impact on how families dealt with the handicaps. One religion from this area taught that handicapped children were a punishment from God for wrongful acts. These families kept the handicapped child at home and out of sight as much as possible, as the child was evidence of sin in the family.
One cultural group felt that handicapped children were inferior and had to overcome adversity before being accepted. It was said that this culture would leave a handicapped infant alone in the desert. If it survived, it was meant the powers that be were affirming the child's right to live. Obviously there was little chance this could happen.
On the other end of the continuum was a religious group who believed that children born into the world chose the type of person they wanted to be. Those who wanted the greatest challenge chose to be born handicapped. This religious group gave great attention to the handicapped as they represented spirits who had chosen a more challenging life. The state that has a significant representation of that religion is always among the leaders in funding of education and other programs for the handicapped.
The life of a person with a communication difference is strongly influenced by the society in which the person lives. The effect of that influence shapes the perspective of the family, which makes the effect even more profound.
Much of reaction of society to the person with a communication difference is negative. Over the years I have heard countless stories that suggest a general insensitivity on the part of our general culture to persons with communication differences. Many experiences can be described as rude, some as cruel. I believe that most negative experience encountered by persons with communication differences are the result of lack of knowledge, and therefore lack of understanding, on the part of the offending party. Nowhere in our formal educational training for life do we experience what it is like to have a communication difference and learn how to interact effectively with those who do.
That is the reason I wrote this book. Perhaps there will come a time when society assumes a more positive attitude toward communication differences (such as the religion which feels the handicapped represent a special group). I hope that this book will help those who have not experienced a communication difference understand how it feels to have one and through that experience understand how a person with a communication differences wishes to be treated.
Most of us will at one time or another in our lives experience a communication difference of some type. We will be disfluent in an anxious situation, our voice may be come hoarse as a result of cheering too much at a ball game, or we may have a cold that causes a temporary hearing loss. Whether communication differences are temporary or permanent, the lives of people who experience them can be made much more comfortable by a culture who understands these differences and can react appropriately to them.