What is a communication disability?

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Talking and communicating to others is a task often taken for granted, but for people with a communication disability, there can be considerable limitations and obstacles in daily life.

Key points

  • An estimated 1.2 million Australians have some level of a communication disability
  • Communication disabilities impact a person’s ability to understand or be understood by others
  • Speech is not the only form of communication, as many people have alternative or additional methods of verbal and non-verbal communication

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) 2015 Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers (SDAC), an estimated 1.2 million Australians have a communication disability.

The limitations of a communication disability vary from mild to severe, while some are lifelong and others short-term. There is no one-size-fits-all label for communication disabilities.

Defining a communication disability

The term communication disability, or communication disorder, covers a wide range of conditions that ultimately impact a person’s ability to communicate with others.

This includes people with a disability who communicate with the use of a communication aid or those who cannot understand or be understood by others at all.

Communication disabilities can be linked to a range of conditions, and it is not always standalone. For example, a communication disability can be:

  • From birth, such as Down Syndrome, cleft lip and palate, or autism
  • During childhood, for example, a developmental language disorder (DLD), stuttering, or a severe speech sound disorder
  • From injury or degenerative conditions, like a traumatic brain injury, stroke, head/neck cancers and neurodegenerative disorders, such as Motor Neurone Disease
  • Late in life, such as dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, or Parkinson’s disease

Often difficulties in speech, language, fluency, voice and social communication are also linked to greater social challenges, including academic participation, employment opportunities and mental health.

The impact on daily life

According to the ABS, 42 percent of people with a communication disability are less likely to have a non-school qualification – like a diploma or degree – compared to 61 percent of people without a communication disability.

Children are often the most affected also, as 86 percent of those with a communication disorder are more likely to have profound communication challenges.

Meanwhile, the ABS also revealed that just 38 percent of adults with communication disabilities participate in the workforce. A reported one in seven also require assistance or support on a regular basis to communicate.

Speech Pathology Australia’s Senior Advisor Disability, Amy Fitzpatrick, says society needs to be more accessible and inclusive for people with communication disabilities.

“One way to do this is to work on being a good communication partner, and take the burden off people with a communication disability, and provide good communication access for all,” Ms Fitzpatrick says.

“It is similar to the concept of providing ‘kerb cuts’ for communication. Kerb cuts make it possible for people who are in wheelchairs to access their physical environment.

“Communication access involves providing necessary environmental supports for people with communication disability to access the community and mainstream services by being able to communicate effectively.”

Communication access and aids can also benefit a range of other people who have difficulties with spoken or written communication, such as people with English as a second language and people with low literacy.

Support for people with a communication disability

In some instances, texting, typing or sign language may be the only tool someone needs to effectively communicate. Or, they may work with a speech pathologist to develop communication strategies.

You can learn more about how a speech pathologist can help through our article, ‘How do people with disability utilise speech pathology.’

For some people with a communication disability, they do not have control over their vocal chords or they may be non-verbal.

These complex communication needs (CCN) are often associated with other physical, cognitive or sensory impairments and can be a lifelong disability. A speech pathologist provides the appropriate support and tools for confident communication.

Therefore, people with CCN will use alternative or additional methods of communication, such as Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC). These communication aids include:

  • Key word signs
  • Communication books
  • Speech generating devices
  • Accessible technology for phone and internet-based communication

AAC is also often multi-modal and a person with a communication disability is by no means limited to one type. They may use multiple aids to understand, and be understood by, others in a range of settings.

NDIS support for communications disabilities

Early intervention support and ongoing support is available for National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) eligible participants.

Under the Early Childhood Early Intervention (ECEI) scheme, children under six with a disability or developmental delay can access speech pathology and other support services for communication purposes.

If you have been approved for NDIS funding, a NDIS partner will set up a plan to determine what supports are required, including seeing a speech pathologist or the purchase of assistive technology, communication aids and AAC.

How has your experience accessing support for a communication disability been? Tell us in the comments below.

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