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Switching to Communication

Tony Jones & Martyn Maltby

Liberator Ltd

This paper deals with practical issues surrounding the use and development of switching skills with individuals (children and adults) experiencing Profound and Multiple/Complex Learning difficulties. Both authors are practising special needs teachers still actively working with individuals experiencing PMLD: Tony in a college and Martyn in a school.

This paper is not about the ergonomics of switch use. This has been well documented (for example go here http://www.ace-north.org.uk/resources/resq.htm ). This paper is not about extolling the virtues of one piece of hardware or software over another (If we were to recommend anything it would be PowerPoint, a piece of software that most establishments will have and yet, often, underused and undeveloped).

This paper is about the everyday reality of life in a classroom with individuals for whom real progression is challenging.

The needs of learners experiencing PMLD

It is our belief that individuals experiencing PMLD have a need and a right to develop communication skills. We believe this need outweighs all other educational needs and indeed, we would argue that other needs are likely to be dependent upon the ability to communicate.  While we cannot fault a philosophy that supports an individual’s right to have access to a national curriculum, we believe that ‘right’ and ‘rite’are not one and the same thing. We all have a right to go and study astrophysics at Cambridge under Stephen Hawking. However, Cambridge would make just claim that there are certain pre-requisites to this study and that for the individual sitting in, without such pre-requisites, such a session would be meaningless.  The ‘rite’ of putting severely cognitively challenged individuals into (to pick one at random) a session on the ‘impact of Romans on Britain’ seems to us a little questionable to say the least unless this is simply a vehicle for more important targets (for example communication). Furthermore, we would be tempted to call an infringement of human rights, any situation that allowed an individual to leave school without an effective means of communication because energies were deployed in other directions citing political or philosophical rhetoric.

The importance of ICT and switching

While some might claim that the use of ICT in support of emergent communication skills is overvalued (See for example Cockerill H. 2002) we would make no such claim. However, no one is claiming that ICT (assistive or adaptive technologies) alone are the answer. ICT is a tool, a means to an end and, with this group of people especially, rarely end in itself (although some may need technology to augment their existing communicative abilities). As with any tool, it is as good as the craftsperson that uses it -although the quality of the tool itself does have some part to play. The craftsperson,  one of those dedicated folk in the average classroom, has a number of tools at his/her disposal, if these tools are chosen wisely and used well then they can and do make a difference (here we speak from experience). They must be a part of a more global strategy (strategies?) for the amelioration of the condition and all who work with and in some way impinge on the lives of the individuals concerned (significant others) must play their part. Techniques / strategies such as Multi-Sensory Referencing (Jones and Galway 2002), Intensive Interaction (Nind and Hewett 1994 http://www.intensiveinteraction.co.uk/index.asp), Non Directive Therapy (See Cockerill H 1990) all have major parts to play (the list is not exhaustive) in the equation that helps an individual make sense of his/her world and move forward, albeit slowly, towards emergent interpersonal communicative behaviours. The reader will note that these techniques are primarily based on human-human interactions and not technology-human interactions supporting Cockerill’s (2002 op.cit.) motion that we need to put the emphasis back on face-to-face, human-human interactions.

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