Why Do We Need Augmentative and Alternative Communication?

For many people, the ability to communicate is such an integral part of life that they may seldom pause to appreciate its value in connecting them to others and enabling them to conduct the affairs of their lives. It is easy to take for granted the ability to speak whenever, wherever, and to whomever one chooses. Not everyone has such an easy time communicating, however. For people who have severe communication impairments, an augmentative or alternative communication (AAC) method may mean the difference between silence, isolation, and dependence versus having a life that is interwoven with the lives of those of family and friends and others by communication and shared understanding.

"Severe communication impairments can affect every aspect of an individual's life: self- perception, independence, access to health care, and all the other routine activities of daily living that individuals without communication impairments can take for granted. Most importantly, these adverse impacts are as unnecessary as they are severe: because of the existence of AAC interventions, including AAC devices." (Impacts of Severe Communication Disabilities on Individuals, http://www.augcominc.com/whatsnew/impacts.html)

When a person cannot speak or otherwise communicate clearly and effectively, other people may mistakenly think that s/he does not comprehend or is unable to learn to communicate and make decisions. With access to a communication device and training to use it (and training for their communication partners), many people with speech impairments can communicate without speaking. They can resume, maintain, or gain for the first time the ability to express themselves in conversation with others and to make choices and decisions. They can demonstrate their understanding of their life and circumstances. They can further develop their communication skills, their thinking, and their ability to relate to others, which are critical foundations for development throughout life.

Many people with speech impairments who use augmentative communication methods have written passionately about the importance of communication. The following statements by four such individuals point out the urgency of gaining a means to communicate effectively.

Bob Williams: "Historically, the ability of speech has been closely associated with the capacity for language and intelligence as well. Individuals with speech disabilities therefore typically have been assumed to have limited intelligence, and to lack both the ability and right to express ourselves ..." (Bob Williams, Speaking Freely, https://web.archive.org/web/20001028173948/http://web.syr.edu/~thefci/1-4wil.htm).

Sue Rubin: "The problem arises when a person's intelligence is based on his ability to communicate. If he can't express his thoughts, it is assumed he is retarded and doesn't have the need for a communication system that allows for sophisticated thought. The person who has not developed a thinking process will never be able to, and the person who can't express his thoughts will be thought not to have any ... Socially, my communication system has truly proved invaluable. Without it I would still be a 'non- thinking' person wrapped up in autism instead of the intelligent person I am, who is thoroughly enjoying life in spite of a significant disability." (Sue Rubin, One Size Does Not Fit All – Matching a Thinking System to a Student, TASH Connections, May 2002, Vol. 28, No. 5.)

Helen Keller: "Meanwhile, the desire to express myself grew. The few signs I used became less and less adequate, and my failures to make myself understood were invariably followed by outbursts of passion ... After awhile the need of some means of communication became so urgent that these outbursts occurred daily, sometimes hourly." (Helen Keller, The Story of My Life, 2002 [New York: Signet Classic]).

Anne McDonald: "Crushing the personalities of speechless individuals is easy: just make it impossible for them to communicate freely." (R. Crossley and A. McDonald, Annie's Coming Out, 1984 [Middlesex, England: Penguin]).

There is growing awareness that people with many different conditions which affect speech either temporarily or long term can benefit from augmentative communication methods. The International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication (ISAAC) has provided this perspective on "Who Benefits" from AAC:

"Anyone who finds it very difficult to communicate by just speech may be helped by using AAC. Lots of different AAC methods are used by people of all ages, with physical or learning difficulties. Some people use AAC just to communicate. Other people use AAC to help them understand what is being said to them.

Some people need to use AAC because of something that happened when they were born – people with cerebral palsy or learning disabilities. Other people start to use AAC when they are older. This can be because they have had a stoke or a brain injury or a disease.

Any disability that makes it difficult for the person to communicate may find AAC methods helpful. For some people, AAC is just used for a short time such as after an operation. Other people use AAC all their lives." http://isaac.org.in/about_aac.html

Access to a means of effective communication is considered to be so important that numerous organizations have issued statements on the right to communicate and the importance of providing access to augmentative communication. TASH (The Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps), an international advocacy organization, has adopted a compelling resolution.

TASH Resolution on the Right to Communicate (excerpt):

Statement of Purpose

The right to communicate is both a basic human right and the means by which all other rights are realized. All people communicate, and are presumed to have an active interest in communicating their decisions and choices. In the name of fully realizing the guarantee of individual rights, we must ensure:

  • that all people have a means of communication which allows their fullest participation in the wider world; and
  • that their communication is heeded by others.

Where people lack an adequate communication system, they deserve to have others collaborate with them to discover and secure an appropriate system. No person should have this right denied because they have been diagnosed as having a particular disability. Access to effective means of communication is a free speech issue.


Freedom to Communicate. People with communication disabilities must be allowed to use the communication system of their own choice in all communication interactions in any setting. In no case should an individual be left without a means to communicate. This includes all forms of augmentative and alternative communication, assistive technology, and access to a variety of effective methods and strategies. In any instances where such use is forbidden, there should be recourse to the legal and protective systems ....


We established the Everyone Communicates website in order to provide information, resources, and new and perhaps challenging perspectives which may improve communication access for anyone with a severe communication impairment. Additional information on the importance of communication and on how AAC methods may help is provided elsewhere in this website and in links to other sites.

See also the section on Personal Stories for perspectives of individuals who use AAC, their families and friends, and professionals. Individuals who experience the benefits of communication through AAC after days or years of silence provide eloquent testimony to the urgency of access to communication and ongoing individualized communication supports.

What is it like to live in silence, and to Come Out Of Silence?

And finally, for another perspective on the matter, see Judy Bailey's Thoughts on Facilitated Communication Training.