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Published on January 21st, 2014


My Journey to Jamaica

by Sarah McEwen, M.Cl.Sc., S-LP(C), Reg. CASLPO Speech-Language Pathologist 

I recently traveled to Jamaica with Students Crossing Borders. Typically a student-driven venture, this was the first trip to include a multidisciplinary “therapy team”, including a speech-language pathologist. It was also my first experience practicing outside of Canada.

The potential benefits of having an S-LP on board were not initially obvious to the rest of the caregiving team at the orphanages we were visiting. I worked with caregivers and therapists to increase their understanding of language development and communication, but I needed some concrete examples to support the ideas I had shared. Then I met David.

David was 20 years old and had cerebral palsy. His upper and lower limbs were affected by his condition and he was non-verbal. In his wheelchair, he sat with a cheery, yet modest disposition. David was cautious to engage with me at first but I could tell he was intrigued when I put a picture board in front of him.

I reviewed the things that David’s caregivers already knew: he had good receptive language, limited expressive skills and a reliable “yes/no” response. I told his caregivers that David could use a communication board to communicate with others, but they had their doubts. David and I spent a few hours together, exploring the board I gave him. I talked about things I thought might interest him and soon he began to touch the words, one by one, listening to me as I labeled the pictures. I kept modeling and he kept scanning, but I wasn’t sure how much David had learned about the “power” of communication. I told his caregiver I would take the board with me and bring it back the next day. In hearing this, David signaled to us as he touched the picture for “mine”. We smiled; we were surprised and delighted.

Communication boards

Samples of communication boards

The next day, I returned to the residence. David, a caregiver and I spent the morning together, engaging in conversation using his board and adding to his new personalized vocabulary. He made jokes and he told me about his home. To this day it remains one of the most meaningful conversations I have ever had.

With his communication board at hand and a newly inspired caregiver watching over, I left David’s home hopeful that this experience would improve his quality of life and demonstrate some of the benefits of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC).

On my last day in Jamaica, I had the privilege of providing a workshop to front-line caregivers. Before our session began, David’s caregiver came up to me with an update from the last two days:

“He loves his board! We ask him: ‘What do you want?’ and he might touch ‘eat’ and we bring him food. Then he touches ‘thank you’. Can we get more of those boards for other residents?”

With that, I changed my workshop focus to AAC. We talked about modeling, aided language, providing opportunities, vocabulary and patience. We worked together to create simple, hand-drawn communication boards that could support non-verbal residents and I watched as theory transpired into creative ideas and potential. When this workshop ended, it seemed the caregivers had a new understanding of communication. I felt hopeful that David and the other residents would be given the chance to make choices, to direct some of their own care and build on social closeness through communication. When I arrived in Jamaica, my goal was to teach people about language and communication. I wanted to teach and share, but instead I gained and learned more than I could have imagined. Listening to David share his ideas in a conversation — for quite possibly the first time — was an experience I’ll never forget.

Special thanks to Danielle Miller from Dynavox for donating laminated communication boards for this trip.

Sarah McEwen
Sarah McEwen
M.Cl.Sc., S-LP(C), Reg. CASLPO

About the author:

Sarah loves working as an S-LP with children and she loves traveling. Jamaica combined her two passions for one awesome adventure. At home in Toronto, her practice focuses on autism, communication and language delays and literacy development in children.

Captions for images (clockwise from top left):
1: A mango tree grows outside one of the Jamaican orphanages.
2: A fresh coconut treat at Devon’s house in Kingston.
3: A worker opens the gate to Jerusalem Children’s Village in Spanish Town to let our van through.
4: An aerial shot of the picturesque Jamaican Blue Mountains.
5: Canoes lining Hellshire Beach in St. Catherine Parish (near Kingston).

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