Higher Education

STUDENT VOICE: As a person with autism, I spend lots of time studying, attending class — and explaining that I am not deaf

Let’s end campus ignorance about how speech-generating devices work

Jordyn Zimmerman, an Ohio University student, is a person with autism.

Have you ever tried having a conversation with someone on campus, when they hesitantly and ever-so-awkwardly start signing to you? Or have you ever asked another student a question and had them respond to you in writing?

When I think of these experiences, I always laugh at how uninformed people are about individuals who use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC).

My AAC device is an iPad. As I told readers in a previous Hechinger Report article, I experienced a communication breakthrough at age 18 when I began using the iPad and was finally able to express my personal thoughts and share what I know. I had previously been unable to express most of my thoughts verbally. Many professionals, such as teachers and doctors, were unable to see how intelligent I was.

Related: Willing, able and forgotten. How high schools fail special-ed students

One day last month, I was walking across campus when someone asked me a question. As I looked down at my iPad to start answering, the individual repeated the question — as if I didn’t know that I had been addressed.

Acutely aware of the frustration, I quickly typed out a response. As my robotic voice spoke, the questioner stared at me, signed “thank you,” blushed and then loudly enunciated, “I don’t know any other sign language.”

Excited for another idyllic — if there is such a thing — opportunity to build acceptance, I hit a button that said, “I’m not deaf. I can understand everything you say, but I need this program to talk.” The person gave me the slang symbol for ‘OK’ and proceeded to walk away. While this certainly isn’t a unique occurrence, it doesn’t make it any less irritating.

Over the past few years, I have spent a significant amount of time explaining to people that I am not deaf, especially after enrolling in college. While there are individuals all over the world who utilize this communication because they are unable to hear, it is currently estimated that well over one million folks use speech-generating devices (SGD) as a means to express language, and many more could benefit.

Though wide adoption of speech-generating devices is slow and many individuals remain segregated, the truth is, with these growing statistics, your chance of interacting with persons who use these communication devices is likely.

Related: STUDENT VOICE: They told me I’d never go to college but I just finished my freshman year — what about all the other students with autism?

Our future generations are full of prospective lawyers, scientists, teachers, cashiers, doctors and so many other amazing humans who may need access to these devices down the line.

I hope that years from now, when that stranger on my campus has another opportunity to engage with someone who uses a speech-generating device, they presume competence — and without hesitation.

Because ultimately, familiarity is what fosters respect, acceptance and empathy. Let’s stop assuming what other people’s challenges are. When we make such assumptions, we miss out on their strengths, their words and, most notably, their stories.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our newsletter.

Jordyn Zimmerman is a student at Ohio University.

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Jordyn Zimmerman

Jordyn Zimmerman is a rising sophomore at Ohio University. See Archive

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