Effective Communication: Your Right to Your Voice

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Students go to school to learn. To learn, students need to know what people are telling them. They also need to be able to tell other people things. Telling things to other people – and learning things from them – is called communication. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a disability rights law, says that all people with disabilities have the right to communicate. The Rehabilitation Act is a disability rights law that was passed in 1973. Section 504 of that law says that the U.S. government and anyone who gets government money can’t discriminate against people with disabilities. 

The ADA and Section 504 cover a lot of the same things, but Section 504 covers the U.S. government and the ADA covers state and local governments and private schools. The state governments run public schools. Title III of the ADA covers private schools. 

Under these laws, students have the right to communicate in the way that works best for them. They have the right to anything they need to communicate. This is called the right to effective communication. 

All schools – including private schools – have to follow the ADA. On this page, we will tell you how the right to effective communication works, some threats to effective communication in schools, and how you can fight for every student’s right to communicate. 

How the Right to Effective Communication Works 

Some people have disabilities that make it harder for other people to understand them. Sometimes people have disabilities that make it harder for them to understand other people. For example: 

  • Being unable to see or hear 
  • Having a hard time understanding what you see or hear 
  • Not being strong enough to move or speak 
  • Not being able to control the muscles that let you move or speak
  • Having a hard time starting any action that would make you move or speak 
  • Having a hard time putting sentences together and remembering what words you know 

Even though a disability might make things harder, everyone communicates. There are lots of ways people communicate. 

Some people talk.

Some people point or move around.

Some people make faces.

The ADA says everyone has the right to communicate. The ADA says that people with disabilities have the same right to communicate that people without disabilities do. 

People with disabilities have that right in public places. Public places are places like schools, shops, streets, and hospitals. 

This means that: 

  • If a public place tries to tell you something, people with and without disabilities have to be able to understand what they are saying. 
  • If you want to tell a public place, like a school, something, the public place has to give you what you need to communicate. 

People also have that right in any place run by a state or local government, like a public school. 

There are lots of different ways people communicate. They can use: 

  • Papers and textbooks in Braille 
  • Someone typing what someone else is saying out loud and showing it to the person with a disability
  • Toolkits written in plain language 
  • iPads and computers 

… and much more! 

Some of these things – like the iPads and computers – are called augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices. This means they are tools that help a person communicate. 

When a public place gives a person with a disability a way to communicate, they must first try to give the person the service they want. They cannot try other things first. For example:

  • Jennifer uses American Sign Language to communicate. She needs an interpreter.
  • Her school has to give her an interpreter.
  • They can’t tell her to just write down what she wants to say. They have to try the interpreter first.

There is an exception. Sometimes the public place can’t give a person with a disability the service they want. When the public place can’t, it has to be because: 

  • It would change what they are selling or offering a lot 
  • It would take up more resources than the public place can afford 

When this happens the public place has to give the person with a disability something else that will also work instead. This should rarely ever happen. It is a small exception. The exception should not be used all the time, or just because getting the person the communication method they want would be hard. 

Communication in Schools and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a law about public schools that was passed in 1990. The law says that students with disabilities have the right to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). A “free and appropriate public education” means that: 

  • The education is free. The student and the student’s parents do not have to pay any money for the student to attend school. 
  • The education the student gets helps the student learn. This is what the word “appropriate” means.
  • The education is in the least restrictive environment. The IDEA says that most students with disabilities should be in the same classrooms as people without disabilities. The student should get anything they need to learn in the regular classroom. 

To learn, some students need communication support, like AAC. A school that did not give a student these supports might not be letting them learn. This might violate the ADA. A student who doesn’t have the support they need in the regular classroom might be moved to a segregated classroom. This would violate the IDEA’s least restrictive environment rule. 

Ways in Which Schools Take Away Students’ Communication Rights

Sometimes schools or professionals do things that make it harder for their students to communicate. One way this can happen is if the school does not give someone a way to communicate that works for them. For example:

Demerian uses a computer to say things to other people. The classroom has a rule which says no one can bring computers into the room. Demerian does not bring his computer to class because of this rule. When Demerian gets into class the next day, Demerian’s parents call and ask the teacher if the teacher can give him a computer to use. The teacher says that they cannot do this. Demerian no longer is able to understand what is going on in class or ask or answer questions. Demerian’s right to effective communication is not being respected. 

Sometimes, the school won’t let someone use the way to communicate that works best for them. Instead, the school tries to make them use another method that doesn’t work as well. This also violates the law. For example: 

Johnny tells people things by touching a piece of paper with the alphabet on it and spelling out what he wants to say. Sometimes Johnny says the letters out loud as he does it. Sometimes someone holds the piece of paper for him. This works for Johnny. He is able to say things this way. 

When Johnny goes to high school, the school does not let him use the piece of paper he has. The school says Johnny is not really saying things. The school puts Johnny in another classroom. That classroom has only people with disabilities in it. The school gives him a different piece of paper. It only lets him say things like ‘I need to go to the bathroom.’ The school tries to make him speak. Johnny does not like it there. He does not learn much. Johnny cannot say as much as kids with disabilities without his communication method. His right to effective communication is not being respected.

Ways to Protect Students’ Right to Communication 

ASAN has fought hard for student communication rights. We advocate against rules and positions that would make it harder for students to communicate. We have published guides that tell people how to get communication services in schools, like our “Everybody Communicates” guide made with the help of the University of California’s Office of Developmental Primary Care. We have helped students get what they need from their school districts and fight for their right to communicate in their schools. 

Here are a few things you can do to help every student communicate: 

  • Work with ASAN!
  • Talk with school districts in your local area and tell them about all the different ways people with disabilities communicate. Talk with them about augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) and other ways non-speaking people communicate. 
  • Some professional organizations have rules or positions that make it harder for people to use some forms of AAC. These organizations are important enough that people listen to them, even when they are wrong. For example, one organization – the American Speech and Hearing Association (ASHA) – said that two whole kinds of AAC were never real communication, no matter who used them. ASAN opposed this belief because it is impossible to prove that a way to communicate does not work for anyone. Everyone communicates differently! The position would also make it harder for many autistic people to go to school. Talk with organizations like this and ask them to change their position. Tell them that everyone communicates differently. 
  • If you are a parent of a student with a disability or a student yourself – Work with other students to support you or your child’s right to communicate!