NHS Education for Scotland A new campaign has launched in Scotland that aims to help people understand the needs of individuals who use augmentative and alternative communications (AAC) in place of speech. 

The NHS Education for Scotland (NES) campaign, entitled ‘Now hear me: It’s my right to speak’, will run for 4 months and is targeted at health, social care, social work and education professionals but is equally relevant to the wider community including shops, banks, public transport operators and leisure services.

It is estimated that 26,500 people in Scotland require AAC. This could be impaired communication due to lifelong conditions such as cerebral palsy or autism, or as a result of an acquired condition such as dementia, motor neurone disease, stroke or head injury. 

AAC methods range from the simple – such as picture communication books and gestures – to more sophisticated computer-based equipment running specialist software such as text or other input-to-speech programmes.  

A website, www.nowhearme.co.uk, has been created to support the campaign. The site provides information and advice, ranging from a basic video introduction through to a set of e-learning modules that will help people to better understand AAC. It provides easy access to resources for all those with an interest in AAC, including those who use it. Other elements of the campaign include online advertising and direct communication to a range of Scottish public services such as health boards and local authorities.

The campaign has been welcomed by AAC users. “My communication aid has made a huge difference to my quality of life,” said Rachael Monk from Dumfries and Galloway, who uses AAC technology because she has cerebral palsy. “It allows me to convey my thoughts, feelings and opinions. I can voice concerns, make choices, tell jokes, and chat with friends, like anybody should be able to do. I attended college and obtained an A level in Fine Arts, I have given speeches at conferences, and I am able to speak up in important meetings. Without my communication aid, I would not be able to do any of this or express exactly what I wanted to say.”

Helen McFarlane, programme director, Allied Health Professions, NES, and a speech and language therapist, said: “AAC has incredible potential to improve quality of life, allowing individuals to express themselves, be more independent and, importantly, enabling them to communicate with the people who love them. But there are no magic fixes. Different systems will work best for different people. What matters most is the support of the wider community and taking time to listen.

“Very often, I meet individuals who use AAC who tell me that they can express themselves but they need people to be just a little more patient. Everyone communicates in different ways and it doesn’t matter if you don’t understand someone the first time – just let them know. Be confident enough to approach them and remember to address to them directly, not just their carer. Anyone could face losing their speech and all most people in that situation want is for you to treat them the way you would want to be treated.”

Michael Matheson, Minister for Public Health, also welcomed the campaign. “Everyone has a fundamental right to be heard,” he said. “Most of us are fortunate enough to be able to take this for granted, but for some it can be a daily struggle. I call on everyone, but especially people who work with the public, to find out more about what they can do to help ensure this right is respected and guaranteed across Scotland.”