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AHRC New York City Empowers DSPs Through AAC Coaching Sessions 

Submitted By: Lorraine Cohen, Speech-Language Pathologist, Assistive Technology Specialist, AHRC New York City

In 2023, AHRC New York City, Adult Day Services (ADS), initiated remote Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) Coaching Sessions. This provides DSPs, who support people who use communication devices throughout its centers in New York City’s five boroughs, with a forum to learn AAC best-practices. It also offers a place to “voice” their AAC experiences. 

One-hour remote sessions are conducted once a week for two consecutive weeks, with a third session offered to DSPs who wish to learn how to customize systems. Sessions are repeated every 6 weeks with DSPs invited to return. Small groups and hands-on, skill-building exercises promote professional development through engagement and active learning. The coach is a Speech-Language Pathologist. Sessions also focus on language learning and use, as they contribute to AAC and communication effectiveness. 

The Impact Of The AAC Coaching Sessions

AHRC New York City’s mission is to “empower people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to make choices and decisions based on their own aspirations, live as independently and be as productive as possible, as well as participate fully in their communities.” Our organization can achieve this mission when people with complex communication needs, through technology, have access to a “voice” and with support from skilled and committed DSPs, can reach their person-centered goals. 

“The AAC Coaching sessions are great and very informative.”

DSP, AHRC New York City 

Since 2023, seventeen DSPs from ten ADS centers attended sessions. Through personal development, DSPs increase their self-worth, intrinsic value as employees, and ownership of services. This initiative has impacted DSPs in a variety of ways: 

  • Empowers DSPs with foundational AAC skills.
  • Provides on-going individualized opportunities to further advance AAC competencies.
  • Builds a DSP community and a shared purpose, which is strengthened when site supervisors, behavior intervention specialists, and parents attend sessions.
  • Empowers DSPs to gain the confidence and competencies to train other DSPs to reduce dependence on basic AAC clinical services.
  • Promotes career advancement.

Steps To Implement AAC Coaching Sessions

To be successful in creating an AAC Coaching Sessions program, organizations need to commit to supporting communication technology to enhance self-direction and independence in people with complex communication needs. It helps if organizations can identify leadership that is clinically informed of AAC best practices as well as agency-supported with the tools to provide AAC services and supports. 

“I learned that there are many different types of communication devices with different software.”

DSP, AHRC New York City

Leadership staff should recognize that DSPs contribute in a meaningful way to AAC success, and acknowledge that remote service-learning is an efficient tool to bring together DSPs within a department or site to foster a sense of ownership and community. It is also essential to design AAC Coaching Sessions for DSPs and other AAC team members based on adult learning theory that premises teaching is not talking and learning is not listening. 

Here are action steps you can take to establish your own AAC Coaching Sessions: 

  1. Prepare 3 PowerPoint presentations that incorporate AAC strategies that promote success.
  2. Identify participants, which could include new hires, DSPs who support new AAC users, DSPs sharing common device platforms, apps, dedicated devices, etc.
  3. Send out invites with time, day, and a Zoom link, along with an RSVP option.
  4. Gather session materials to screenshare (i.e., PowerPoint) screenshots of AAC page-sets, etc.
  5. Set up technology that allows DSPs to remotely control the coach’s screen and directly participate with the materials.
  6. Sessions begin with introductions. DSPs voice their positive experiences and the needs of the people they support. Team members contribute their knowledge and experience.
  7. Sessions end with each DSP formulating an AAC plan to implement during the week.
  8. Finally, collect feedback from participants!
  9. The 2nd session begins with DSPs reporting what worked and didn’t work from the prior session’s “homework.”
  10. The 3rd session involves customizing devices, which necessitates DSPs have a device on-hand, if possible.

Challenges Involving AAC Coaching Sessions

Challenges may come from resources that are untapped or unavailable to support the various technology needs of an overarching person-centered AAC program. Clinics that provide weekly AAC therapy may also face time and/or funding constraints to organize and regularly train not only site-based DSPs, but a department-wide team. In addition, you may find that some clinics lack AAC expertise. 

Along with those potential challenges, staffing issues are long-standing and well-documented in adult day services. DSPs may resign prior to reaching their comfort level when providing AAC services, or DSPs who are proficient in AAC may be promoted, which leaves a gap in services. 

Another difficulty may be that new intakes bring devices or apps on-site, that are unfamiliar to either trained or new DSPs. Organizations might also find that adding AAC responsibilities without monetary incentives or professional development, may discourage DSP ownership of AAC supports. Finally, a potential challenge could be if DSPs are left without a site-based support team when people who use communication devices do not receive weekly speech/language services. 

Organizations can reimagine AAC services to prevent or confront these challenges. These tips may help you in implementing AAC Coaching Sessions: 

  • Identify an AAC Specialist to oversee AAC services and supports. 
  • View DSPs – with the knowledge of person-centered needs of the people who use communication devices they support, along with daily interactions across different environments – as critical AAC partners who, when motivated and skilled, contribute to its success. 
  • Whenever possible, pair tech savvy DSPs with people who use communication devices. 
  • View professional development as a way to stabilize the workforce by empowering DSPs with a sense of self-worth, job satisfaction, and a sense of belonging to a team and community. 
  • Provide AAC coaching sessions that follow adult learning theory that are routinely repeated. 
  • Utilize grants, State Medicaid/Medicare funds, IDD Waiver and/or AT Waiver Funds, State Assistive Technology Centers, or vendor resources to support technology needs. 

About AHRC New York City

AHRC New York City works to advocate for people who are neurodiverse to lead full and equitable lives. The organization’s vision is a socially just world where the power of difference is embraced, valued and celebrated. 

We’re fiercely committed to achieving equity for people who are neurodiverse in New York City. At AHRC New York City we support more than 15,000 people annually under our guiding principle of Equalism. We uphold the highest standards in supporting people to lead full and equitable lives and are part of a social justice movement grounded in our common humanity. Our 5,000 staff are devoted to the highest levels of excellence and innovation in all aspects of their work to actively create a world where the power of difference is embraced, valued and celebrated. 

You can learn more about AHRC New York City by visiting the organization’s website: 

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Since 1969, CQL | The Council on Quality and Leadership has been a leader in working with human service organizations and systems to continuously define, measure, and improve quality of life and quality of services for youth, adults, and older adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and psychiatric disabilities. CQL offers accreditation, training, certification, research, and consultation services to agencies that share our vision of dignity, opportunity, and community for all people.