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Is Presuming Competence for Non Symbolic Communicators Risk Free?

hand reaching out for ladder towards blue sky

In one of our previous posts, we introduced Joanna, contributor to Disabled Living’s blog who you’ll see more of over a series blogs. Joanna wrote about Objects of Reference and highlighted the dangers of using a standardised approach to them for people who will not become symbolic communicators.

I imagine some people protested my words:

“But we always presume competence, they might not be symbolic communicators now, but they may become symbolic communicators.”

Of course it is true that some people will learn slowly over time to become symbolic communicators, however it is also true that some people will never learn to be symbolic communicators.

Hidden in the defence above is the assumption that presuming competence is always a good thing. We have all been warned about the danger of assumptions!

“But it is important to have high expectations.” Why yes it is, but are high expectations a definable level or are they relative to each person? Many settings speak the language of being “person centred” whilst at the same time implementing standardised systems of communication which are meaningless to some individuals within that setting.

“But having high expectations and presuming competence is respectful, you wouldn’t want us to have low expectations and presume incompetence would you?”

No of course not, but these things are relative.

Suppose I presumed your competence at flight, and marched you to the top of a high building declaring my faith in you and encouraging you to leap off.

Would my high expectations and presumed competence be good for you? No.

Although we do not pitch people off buildings with our presumed competence, to pit people against things they cannot do is as harmful to their self-esteem as such a leap would be harmful to your body. People with complex disabilities already have high rates of mental ill health, damaging their self-esteem is not going to help.

There are things we cannot do. There are things other people cannot do. Admitting this is not being disrespectful of a person, it is acknowledging them as they are, accepting them as they are, respecting them as they are.

Hidden in the jolly declarations of presumed competence is a prejudice that says intellect is best. To have it is good, to lack it is bad. Perhaps those of us who have this wonderful intellect should use it a little more to consider what is wonderful about other people’s lives, to celebrate them for that, to measure them against that, rather than measuring them against the standard we have been measured against.

Perhaps the high expectations should be on us, we should expect ourselves to recognise each person for who they are, and how they are right now. If we have high expectations for them they should relate specifically to that person, not to a pre-defined standard of what achievement looks like. For some achievement might be graduating with full honours, for others it might be listening to sounds in a new environment without distress. Neither achievement is greater than the other, both are massive for the person accomplishing them. Both deserve recognition and celebration.

This post was written by Joanna Grace, a new contributor to Disabled Living’s blog. Sensory Engagement Specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects.

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