Nonverbal gain way to talk with first responders | Local

After overhearing a conversation between a firefighter and a man with verbal disabilities, Sharon Mankey knew something wasn’t right.

“If there’s a fire in my house and I call it in, how seriously is 911 going to take my phone call?” the man asked the firefighter.

It should’ve been a pretty simple answer. Instead, Mankey was shocked as she watched the firefighter stare back with a blank expression. “I don’t know,” he responded.

It wasn’t what Mankey wanted to hear. Since that encounter in 2015, the IPFW Communications Disorder Clinic director hasn’t looked back.

Mankey and IPFW limited-term lecturer Mariesa Rang have been training first responders to communicate with people using alternative augmentative communication, or AAC, boards and systems.

The boards help those with verbal disabilities communicate their needs to others, especially in life-threatening situations, making first responders’ ability to understand them crucial. With 92 languages spoken in Allen County, the boards can also help break down language barriers.

The boards, which range from low-tech to high-tech versions, can include visual displays and voice outputs with a high vocabulary. Users tap visual displays to form sentences, allowing the voice output to get their message across to the first responders.

“People who have disabilities are more often victims of crime than people who don’t, because they’re looked at as easy targets,” Mankey explained. “Especially the non-verbal, because criminals think, ‘Well they can’t tell anybody.’”

But even before the training began, Mankey, 63, says treatment of the disabled has come a long way. As a kid, she had seen people with disabilities kept out of the public eye, away from the help they really needed.

When she attended graduate school for speech pathology, many of her cases dealt with people who were nonverbal. 

She later worked with a public school system, where Mankey quickly learned no one wanted to deal with kids with intellectual delays, kids she wanted to help.

It’s a different story for Rang, who, as a person with disabilities, has spent her life knowing the struggle of being understood and helped by first responders.

Rang, 29, suffers from both spondyloepiphseal dysplasia, a type of dwarfism, as well as a spinal cord injury that she sustained in graduate school.

“It’s eye-opening, and it’s kind of scary for me, as someone in a wheelchair, that no one is thinking about this,” said Rang who,…

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