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Reflections on communication: Never taking it for granted – Teaching All Students

By Sydney Gilreath, senior in journalism and media studies at the University of Tennessee. This is Sydney’s first in a series of articles sharing her experiences and insights while supporting Tennessee special education training events during the summer of 2021.

When presenters, Susan Usery, Dr. Alex Da Fonte, and Alison Gauld announced to the audience that they would be ordering their lunches via communication boards, the room grew to a deafening silence. Over a hundred school staff looked around the room, sharing glances of confusion, interest, and maybe even a touch of anxiety. This was one of many training situations these presenters would place them in to aid mindset growth on students with low incidence disabilities.

Their task at hand forced them to communicate only through the boards they were given – no texting, no typing, no writing, no gesturing, and no speaking to one another  – during the entire lunch period.

The problem the majority of the attendees ran into was actually using the boards, which was to be expected. Some individuals had two-page boards, others had just one-page, so participants had varying levels of vocabulary. During the activity debrief, attendees were divided on whether or not having more pages was beneficial or harmful, as they had to flip between pages while trying to not hold up the lunchline. 

Participants in this exercise, as well as the training itself, were all individuals directly involved in special education across Tennessee, as part of the Teaching All Students [TAS] initiative through the Tennessee Department of Education’s [TDOE] State Personnel Development Grant [SPDG]. The goal of this training was to aid the project’s first cohort in changing their instructional mindset. Eighteen high schools across the state were chosen via application to participate, and each had four people in attendance – an administrator, a general education teacher, a special education teacher, and a special education director.

Boards like the ones used by attendees are often used by students with complex cognitive disabilities to communicate, although some students have no communication system. These boards are made up of a set of boxes with predetermined images, words, or both. Anything not on the board simply cannot be communicated. As participants discovered, the vocabulary within the boards is limited, and can create conflict while trying to perform common tasks.

This resulted in participants spending their lunchtime silently on their phones, not even bothering to attempt to communicate to their fellow colleagues. These educators found the boards so difficult to communicate with, they simply gave up. Sitting in silence and isolation was easier than struggling to connect with others, through no fault of their own. 

This is the same feeling of isolation and exclusion students with complex needs experience every day.

I grew up in a relatively smaller high school, and we did not have much of a special education program, so all of this information was new to me. Getting to witness the attendees struggling, and often sitting down defeated and frustrated, after leaving the lunchline was an experience I do not think I will ever forget. 

And, while I am not, and probably will not, be involved in the educational field, it’s information that I hold dear. I never really thought about how those who cannot communicate or learn like me may struggle in plain sight while passersby never notice. 

Alison Gauld, the primary facilitator for the Teaching All Students initiative, is the current Low Incidences and Autism Coordinator for the Tennessee Department of Education’s Special Populations department. For more information regarding the initiative, including how you or your school can get involved, email tas@utk.edu.

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