Stroke victim hopes new symbol can help communication in shops and on transport

People with speech difficulties, including those who have suffered stroke, hope a new symbol will be adopted by businesses and help make everyday life easier

It's hoped that the new Communication Access Symbol will be adopted on public transport and in businesses such as banks, shops, restaurants and hotels
Maureen Coleman

WITH face coverings now part of every day life in the Covid 19 climate, communication between people has become more challenging. But for the 30,000 people in the north who live with a speech, language or communication difficulty, struggling to make themselves heard and understood is the norm and the new range of restrictions has only served to marginalise them even further.

In an attempt to make life easier for those with this invisible disability, a new Communication Access Symbol is being launched today; created for businesses, organisations and consumers, with underpinning training and standards.

The blue symbol, bearing two people face to face, is the brainchild of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (RCSLT) in partnership with a number of organisations, including the Stroke Association, Headway and MND Association.

The local branch of the Stroke Association, which supports stroke survivors who may be living with language, speech and motor impairments such as aphasia, dysarthria and/or apraxia, has already adopted the symbol. It is hoped the symbol will become as universally recognised as its wheelchair counterpart and that it will be adopted on public transport and in businesses such as banks, shops, restaurants and hotels.

Scotland currently leads the race in becoming an accessible communication nation, having already introduced inclusive communication legislation to its new social security agency and consumer rights body. Now, with the arrival of the Communication Access Symbol, businesses and organisations in the north will have the opportunity to embrace the cause of accessible communication.

Those that take up the free online training on accessible face-to-face, telephone and online customer service will earn the right to display the Communication Access Symbol – demonstrating their personal commitment to have all their customers’ needs close at heart.

One person who is hoping that the opportunity to learn new communication skills is taken up widely is Co Down man Paul McLean. The dad-of-one suffered a stroke in 2016, a few weeks after his 40th birthday.

Paul, whose stroke was caused by a blood clot in the brain, underwent a revolutionary procedure called a thrombectomy at the Royal Victoria Hospital. This successfully removed the clot. But the stroke left the former school teacher struggling to communicate and though he's recovered well, he still has problems with reading and writing, memory and speech.

“I have strategies that I use to cope,” Paul explains. “For example, I'm better in the morning but as the day goes on and I become more tired, my words slur and I make more mistakes.

Paul McLean says he often finds himself in situations where staff don't possess the adequate skills to communicate with him

“I prefer to do things like interviews or speaking at a conference early on. If you tried to talk to me in the evening, you would think you were talking to a completely different person.

“My reading is like that of a seven-year-old. I use audio books but I can get confused about where I am. With aphasia, it's not just about reading and writing, but how you

understand things.

“Now I lose parts of the audio book because my memory is so bad. I couldn't tell you what I had for my dinner last night.”

After his stroke, Paul's speech was severely affected. But he had a few words and could say his name. He received great support from the local community stroke team including the speech and language therapist and occupational therapist. Paul also attended the Stroke Association’s Communication Plus programme.

Although his ability to communicate is much improved now and is better in the earlier part of the day, Paul can still struggle to make himself understood. This is all the more apparent when in public. And that's why he is so keen to see the new Communication Access Symbol adopted by businesses and customer-service based staff.

Ceara Gallagher of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists. Picture by Kelvin Boyes

One particular incident stands out in his mind when he was left feeling frustrated and tearful and wishes he could've had a trained member of staff to turn to for help.

“As part of my rehab, I was sent to a supermarket to buy 10 items,” says Paul. “There were signs up but I couldn't read them.

“I was looking for tomato ketchup but I was confused and couldn't get the words out. I tried to ask and one woman turned round but I pretended it hadn't been me talking.

“I tried then to say 'red sauce' and the woman realised it was me speaking. I could see that she wanted to help but I was struggling to communicate. She asked me if I was OK. That's when I welled up.

“I became so overwhelmed with the amount of signage and by my inability to ask for help due to my aphasia, that I left.

“That's where the Communication Access Symbol would've come in handy for me. It's a fantastic way for people to learn new communication skills that will enhance their awareness of speech, language and communication needs and give people like me the reassurance that we will be treated the same as any other customer.”

A tendency for people here to speak fast combined with the requirement to wear face coverings now, make experiences like shopping or using public transport, even more difficult for people with communication problems.

Paul says he often finds himself in situations where staff don't possess the adequate skills to communicate with him. For someone who needs to feel confident and comfortable in social settings, this can have a detrimental effect on his recovery.

“Generally people are understanding and kind but the lack of awareness can add an increased burden,” he says. “I remember another occasion when I was trying to buy a coffee and someone asked me if I was drunk.

“Then when Covid-19 hit and most forms of communication moved online, a new hurdle was presented to me. I had to navigate new ways to speak to or contact people.

“We are all individuals. Nobody communicates the same way. There is no normal, therefore we should all be listened to and heard. The Communication Access Symbol will help us all to be heard.”

Ceara Gallagher, head of office for RCSLT NI, says Covid-19 and the wearing of face masks has shone a light on what many people take for granted – the ability to communicate well.

She believes the new symbol will make communication 'everyone's business' and that the onus is on society in general to 'take ownership' and do whatever they can to make life easier and richer for people who are struggling to communicate.

The online training is open to anyone who wants to do it, is easy to learn and is free of charge. It provides simple ideas on how to interact, to slow speech down, to speak clearly, to give people time to ask questions and to learn the art of listening.

“We all need to be aware that many people can have difficulties communicating,” she says. “If someone is in a wheelchair or has a physical disability, we can see it and accommodate them. But when it's a communication disability, it's invisible.

“Having a communication difficulty can place a huge strain on a person, affecting day-to-day activities such as going to the shop or getting on public transport. The symbol will encourage greater awareness of communication difficulties and help people feel more included and heard.

“The training outlines a commitment that we will educate ourselves and the rest of society to be more understanding, patient and supportive.

“We would encourage as many organisations as possible to consider adopting the Communication Access Symbol to make the everyday lived experiences of people with communication needs better.”

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access