A conference welcome to Sydney
AGOSCI Augmentative and Alternative Communication Conference, as the Chair of consumer orgasnising committee, Hilton Sydney, 2012.
On behalf of the organising committee, I would like to extend a very warm and ecstatic welcome to you all! We have worked really hard to make AGOSCI 2013 a really enjoyable conference, and just a really wonderful experience. Personally, I can't believe this day has finally come, after two years of dedicated planning, and organised chaos – sometimes it felt more chaotic than it did organised, it all feels quite surreal and amazing really. It's fabulous to see some familiar faces, and even more, new ones: Welcome!
For all the 22 years of my life, Sydney is the only city I have ever called home, so of course I am biased in saying it's a beautiful city. But in all honesty, there are some gorgeous places around here, a few of which you probably won't have time to see on this trip, because we have such a jam-packed and interesting program. And for that we are sorry, wait, no we are not, because there's so many excellent speakers, who have come to impart their knowledge and expertise in the field of augmentative communication. In particular, the committee would like to sincerely thank Professor Ron McCallum, Sarah Blackstone, Melinda Smith, Sue Balandin and Michael Arthur-Kelly for their contributions to AGOSCI 2013. Of course, we also want to profusely thank the countless people who donated their time, effort, and passion for assistive communication; we absolutely couldn’t have done it without you!
The conference theme is Connect2Communicate. And whatever the extent of your knowledge of augmentative and alternative communication, I'm sure you understand the meaning behind this concept. After all, there's no such thing as good communication without connection. We have to connect to the person we are talking to and acknowledge who they are. For me, since I don't have the luxury of a natural speaking voice, connection is always paramount in all my communication. I try to make sure people hear my true voice amidst the monotone drone of my text-to-speech devices, or amidst my haphazardly signed words. I look people in the eye when I am at the shops or at university, so there's more of a chance that they will see me as a person, not just a disability on asymmetric legs.
It is a common adage within disability circles that society needs to "see the person, not the disability". That is most definitely true, but for AAC users, it's even harder to be seen for who we are when people don't know how to listen to us. Connection is crucial, but connection requires patience and courage. It takes courage to sit in that awkward silence, while a person types out what they want to say. It takes courage to overcome the barrier that AAC presents. Fortunately, technology is improving all the time, and with the advent of the internet and social media, (Email, texting, Facebook, Twitter and the like), communicating is becoming synonymous with connecting.
Personally, I have seen the emergence of the information age andhow it has transformed the way I communicate. I no longer have to brave calling the National Relay service if I want to talk to friends, which I did in primary school. I have countless optionsfor communication now. I can text, Skype, Tweet, Facebook, E-mail and the list goes on, all of which aren't voice-dependent. My typed message is as good as anyone's, and my opinion is as inconsequential as the next person's on the internet.
In lots of ways, I have been incredibly lucky. I have always been surrounded by people, who gave me opportunities to connect to the world around me. Growing up, I never felt at a disadvantage or like I didn't have a voice. In fact, after trying a few communication devices at about 8 years old, I rejected the whole idea. After a week or two of trialling one machine or another, the novelty would wear off and I would leave it behind while I ran around or climbed a tree. I didn't feel I needed something to talk for me, I would write anything I wanted to say, and in primary school, my twin sister would talk for me.
As I got older, in my mind, a communication aid was like a badge of disability - I didn't need one, and I certainly didn't want one. But I definitely wasn't as dismissive of other technology. By the age of 4, I was the first member of my family to own a computer. It was one of those boxy old Macintosh affairs, with a jarring American voice that pronounced words awkwardly, and not how I would say things.
But the world has changed since then. It is constantly changing and evolving; I’m not saying this flippantly. If you think about it, twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to give this speech nearly as effectively as I am now. I truly realise I’m incredibly fortunate to live in the era of technology, but some things aren’t problems that the newest gadget can solve. I think a lot of communication breakdowns can be rectified, but not by learning when to press a particular button or by developing new and more complex technology. In my life of being a outspoken and opinionated communicator, I have found the essential ingredients in any interaction is patience, and tenacity. Relationships that are built on these two qualities are far more important than any built on the basis of technology. We may need an assistive device or other means of communicating who we are, but the emphasis should be placed on those vital, interpersonal connections, rather than the method of how we relate to the world.
The introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme will hopefully change the societal view of disability in general, because it will give people with disability make chance of going out and be able to valuably contribute in their communities. However, we need to make a conscious effort to include people who can’t feasibly include themselves, and of course that encompasses people with communication differences. We need to educate the public how to listen, so people no longer assume a lack of intelligence when they see a communication device, and on a very basic human level, give us the benefit of the doubt.
Meanwhile the business of augmentative communication remains a hard maze to navigate, but we persevere as means of connecting, and connecting is at the core of a meaningful life.