AAC in the Workplace: What Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) Tools Do People Use at Work?

Ability Central examines the ways augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) tools improve work performance, job satisfaction, and career advancement for workers with disabilities.

By Ability Central

16 May, 2024

A visually and hearing impaired multi-racial woman in a tan blazer and striped black dress uses accessibility features on her smartphone and earphones to participate in a meeting while her coworkers give a presentation in a modern office

For as long as humans have been communicating, there has been more to making ourselves understood than using speech. 

And in the workplace, there’s more to a successful career than phone calls and long meetings. Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) tools allow employees with communication disabilities to participate and succeed in their careers just like everyone else.

In this guide, Ability Central answers your most pressing questions about AAC in the workplace, including what it is, why people use it, and what devices are best for workplace situations. 

We answer questions like:

  • What is an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device?
  • What’s the difference between no-tech, low-tech, and high-tech AAC?
  • What challenges do people with communication disabilities face at work?
  • What types of AAC help workers with disabilities? 
  • As an employer, how can I best help employees who use AAC?
  • As an employee, what do I do if my employer won’t let me use AAC?
  • Besides AAC, what workplace accommodations help people with disabilities?
  • Where can I get more information about AAC in the workplace?

 

What is an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device?

Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) tools make communication easier, clearer, and more authentic for people who are nonverbal, have communication disabilities, or just prefer the ease and access of such tools. 

AAC isn’t always fancy technology. It can be as simple as body language, a board with pictures on it, or a handwritten note. Your smartphone contains dozens of AAC features you might be using without realizing it.

AAC includes things like:

  • Voice-to-text or text-to-speech software
  • Telephone relay services (TRS) or teletypewriter services (TTY)
  • Symbol or picture boards
  • Communication apps on mobile devices
  • Speech-generating devices

What’s the difference between no-tech, low-tech, and high-tech AAC?

There are three primary types of AAC: no-tech, low-tech, and high-tech.

No-tech AAC, also called “unaided AAC,” refers to any AAC methods that do not require the use of tools or technology. No-tech AAC includes:

  • Sign language
  • Body language
  • Gestures
  • Facial expressions
  • Other forms of nonverbal communication

Low-tech AAC and high-tech AAC are both considered “aided AAC” because they use tools or technology to improve communication. The difference here is between the cost and complexity of AAC devices. 

Low-tech AAC might include:

  • Handwritten notes.
  • Communication boards, where users point at letters, pictures, or phrases laid out on a chart.
  • Communication books, which are smaller, more mobile versions of communication books, often with many smaller communication boards contained in several pages. 

High-tech AAC is often the most complex, technology-focused, and (sometimes) expensive type of AAC. This type of AAC is highly effective for many people with communication disabilities. 

High-tech AAC includes: 

  • iPads, smartphones, and other technology with built-in communication features.
  • Battery-operated devices with a single function (some speech professionals call these “mid-tech”).
  • Video relay services.
  • Speech generating devices like Dynavox or Salitillo.
  • Specialized communication software downloaded to other devices (like installing ProloQuo on an iPad).
  • Devices that read eye movement.

Many high-tech AAC devices and programs can be operated with very small movements, like pressing buttons with your head or hands. This makes them effective tools for people whose disabilities also affect mobility, like muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, or Lou Gehrig’s disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS). 

What challenges do people with communications disabilities face at work?

Many people with communication disabilities can’t access common office software and systems in the same ways as their coworkers. For example, a Deaf worker cannot take a phone call without the use of AAC like TRS or TTY services.

Work challenges people with communication disabilities might face include:

  • Feelings of isolation from their colleagues and supervisors. 
  • Feeling left out of important workplace decisions.
  • Disruptions to their workflow because of communication breakdowns.
  • Embarrassment, frustration, or anger if colleagues refuse to accommodate their AAC use.
  • Troubles forming relationships with coworkers and leadership.
  • Difficulty advancing in their careers (or finding jobs in the first place).

What types of AAC help workers with disabilities?

AAC helps workers who are:

  • Blind. Text-to-speech and speech-to-text software can help people with low vision read and respond to emails, use workplace materials, and connect on deadlines.  
  • Deaf. Employees who are Deaf or hard of hearing benefit from telephone relay services (TRS), video relay services, teletypewriter services (TTY), and more. Even changing a phone call to an email, text, or instant messenger conversation can be an effective AAC practice for people who are Deaf. 
  • Nonverbal or mute. Speech-generating devices and software ease communication for people with selective mutism, speech disorders like apraxia, or other conditions that affect their voices. People who are nonverbal or mute may also prefer written communication over in-person or phone communication.
  • Limited in their mobility. People who use wheelchairs or have neurological, muscular, or physical disabilities that limit their movement may benefit from software and devices that track eye movement, rely on very small hand movements, or let users type or press buttons with their head or feet.
  • Neurodivergent. Communication can be difficult for people with neurodivergent conditions like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorders (ASD), or dyslexia, especially in high-stress workplaces. Using AAC improves comprehension and lowers some communication barriers.
  • Diagnosed with intellectual or developmental disabilities (I/DD). AAC simplifies communication for people who need more time to process, understand, and formulate questions and answers. In particular, communication apps and software give people with I/DD simple, familiar, and effective ways to communicate at work.
  • Working with an invisible or undocumented disability. Sometimes, people don’t want to disclose their disabilities at work for fear of being treated differently or disrupting workflow. Offering AAC to everyone helps workers with disabilities eliminate this fear and get their jobs done effectively.

As an employer, how can I best help employees who use AAC?

You can create a more welcoming, inclusive, and productive work environment for employees with communication disabilities by:

  • Communicating directly with the employee. Make eye contact. If the employee has an interpreter or aide, speak directly to the employee. Don’t use third-person language while only communicating with the aide. (For example, “Can you tell Dave…”)
  • Asking how they would like to communicate. The first AAC option you think of may not be the one they prefer. Defer to your employee’s experience.
  • Offering AAC and accommodation options at your cost, not the employee’s. Provide software, AAC devices, or other tools as part of their work environment, not as a “bonus.” Offer your team the opportunity to use AAC provided at work, rather than bringing their own devices from home.
  • Training managers and colleagues (and yourself!) in basic AAC and disability etiquette. Creating an inclusive and welcoming environment helps everyone on your team work together more efficiently, whether they use AAC or not. 
  • Changing schedules or workplace policies to accommodate AAC users. For example: 
    • Making sure a team member who uses a speech-generating device always has access to electricity to charge their AAC devices. 
    • Switching phone calls to video meetings so Deaf employees can read lips and work with an interpreter. 
    • Giving colleagues who use text-to-speech software time to ask questions and formulate answers. Depending on the person’s range of motion and typing speed, they may need up to 2-3 minutes to get their point across. 

To learn more about employers’ responsibilities regarding workplace accommodations, see Employer Guide: How to Offer Workplace Accommodations for Employees with Disabilities.

As an employee, what do I do if my employer won’t let me use AAC?

Under the ADA, people with disabilities have the right to “reasonable accommodations”: tools, technology, physical features, or changes to workplace policies that make it easier for them to succeed in their careers. Most AAC qualifies as a “reasonable accommodation” under the ADA, unless the cost or implementation would actively hurt the business.

If your employer won’t let you use AAC at work, there are ways to lodge complaints and fight for your rights. If mediation at work doesn’t get the job done, you can also reach out to an employment attorney, local legal clinic, or a labor organization like the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or the Job Accommodation Network (JAN).

To learn more about your rights as an employee with disabilities, see Disability Rights in the Workplace: An Overview. To learn more about the ADA, check out ADA Overview: What Is the Americans With Disabilities Act?

Besides AAC, what workplace accommodations help people with disabilities?

AAC is not the only way to help people with disabilities succeed at work. Other accommodations offer improvements to mobility, job function, and task management for workers with disabilities. 

Accommodations in the workplace might include:

  • Wheelchair ramps and mobility aids
  • ASL interpreters for meetings or using ASL relay services for calls 
  • Alternate application and interview processes
  • Sitting in what is traditionally a standing role (e.g. cashiering or teaching)
  • Accessible software and hardware
  • Braille, large print, or audio materials
  • Welcoming a service animal into a common workspace
  • Flexible or remote work schedules to accommodate doctors’ appointments and rest breaks

To learn more about workplace accommodations and how to request them, see Employee Guide: How to Ask for Workplace Disability Accommodations.

Where can I get more information about AAC in the workplace?

To learn more about workplace rights and tools for people with disabilities, see: 

To learn more about the Americans with Disabilities Act, visit the official ADA.gov website

The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) offers resources for workers, employers, and others related to disability accommodations and discrimination in the workplace.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) offers guidance on workers’ rights and other employment considerations, including workplace accommodations. 

Tags:
Assistive Technology Laws Self-Development
Article Type:
Learning