What does feeling empowered mean to you? To me it conjures up concepts like: self-advocacy, communication, knowledge, skill and ability. Self-advocacy is the key to empowerment; however individuals with disabilities oftentimes possess communication deficits that make advocating for oneself immensely challenging. They rely on family members, service providers and case managers to speak on their behalf to improve the quality of their lives. I have always asserted that communication is a core skill that must be taught and reinforced throughout one’s lifetime, especially for one with a disability.
As family members, service providers, and case managers, we must empower these individuals to exercise as much choice and control possible in their lives; this happens through actively teaching adaptive skills such as communication. I have witnessed first-hand decreased problem behavior correlated with increased communication skills. We need to remind ourselves that problem behaviors such as self-injury, aggression, property destruction, elopement are fueled by an unmet need. That need must be expressed and if someone has a communication deficit, problem behavior can function as their communication method to meet that need.
Verbal training in behavior analysis focuses on the function of communication rather than the form. This means working with an individual on increasing communication through sign language, picture exchange communication or spoken word when they are highly motivated. So to teach the sign for “eat”, wait until there is hunger. To teach someone to request a break, do so when they appear to need one. To take it even further, one can provide training for making choices through verbal training. For example, if an individual appears thirsty, a structured choice (this or that) of juice or water will not only teach them how to make choices, but can segue into teaching specific requests for that juice or water.
I have two children who have successfully made it through the “terrible two’s” and any parent would agree that this difficult stage subsides with the increased language acquisition. I remember seeing their frustration as they had trouble expressing themselves. Unfortunately, many individuals we work with have never broken through that communication barrier and we must be empathetic and supportive. But we must always remain focused on giving them a voice through increased communication skills. This is the first step to an endless world of possibilities for those needing to advocate for themselves. Giving the gift of communication and self-advocacy leads to true empowerment.