Paul Marshall

 Hamilton, Ontario



I wrote this presentation for a workshop I was asked to give in Peru in the fall of 2009. The week-long workshop was for teachers, professionals and parents who were just starting to teach Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) to their nonspeaking students. It was very rewarding for me to be there presenting from a consumer perspective.

To communicate is like breathing air in and out. It is impossible not to do. It is the heartbeat of our own existence! It is the cornerstone upon which everything is built. Take away communication, we are nothing; we are prisoners within our own bodies! Without communication, the mountains become overwhelming and overpowering; the countless battles that come with being someone with a disability become insurmountable. With communication, learning can and will take place! The high mountains seem a bit smaller and we can see a pathway through, all because of the capability of talking.

Can we make people understand and accept that the differences and similarities in all human beings are crucial? You are female, I am male. You are a child, I am an adult. Although our colour might not quite be the same, our hearts beat in resonance with each other! We long for the day, time, the age when our disabilities will be viewed as abilities and not limitations! The new day, the new age when we bring forth the individual gifts that we can offer! A dream, you might say, but a reality in my mind! It must be a reality in each of our minds.

Join me in a memory. Ramps. They were carefully placed for me to jump. "Ready or not," said my older brother, as he started to push. My go-cart changed into an aircraft for a second. Down the other set of ramps I went.  This is one of many memories from my childhood. My family never saw me as a disabled son or brother. They refused to treat me differently and knew if I was going to make a pathway through life for myself, their job was to equip me with the set of skills which would be my bedrock as I journeyed onward. The words, “do it yourself Paul”, as my two older brothers often said, echo through my memories. I am so thankful for this because it really got me to where I am today.

I always had amazing support from my family and a network of good caring people in my life. This is critical to have throughout our lives especially when we have to live with different expectations being placed upon us because of any disability. Living on a market garden farm in southern Ontario, Canada, no doubt gave me the opportunity to try, win, master and fail at things. It also fostered the development of an inner strength and a healthy outlook in my life. I am deeply convinced that young people with disabilities need to be allowed to win, master, fail, and develop personal skills to live. In my view, they also need to be taught to be explorers to the point of being front runners in the culture of limitations.

Let’s face it, each of us can be front runners in life. We just have to be given the right tools and the right opportunities to soar on our own! Don’t get wrapped up with the mindset that we must have the latest, greatest piece of equipment or must live in an area that has the best support services. There is nothing greater than a heart full of love, compassion, and a desire to be a source of help and empowerment. Just use the tools and the knowledge that are around you. Create physical or mental tools to aid or solve problems. Use your compassion and your untapped strength. Yes, you will fail, but never be beaten down. Develop an innermost spark, but always be ready for setbacks, and be willing to incorporate change into your lifestyle. Thirst for more knowledge. Learn new skills, new attitudes, learn about new tools, and especially, interact with each other.  Be builders of human networks that share success and achievements.

We also need to be sharing our stumbling  blocks, our heartbreaks, our helplessness to cope, because in numbers, there are answers, and healing will come from within. We need to be storytellers. Sharing our successes and failures. We want to learn so we can grow, and in turn, help others.

As a family growing up in the sixties and seventies, we didn’t have the latest, greatest piece of adaptive equipment or have access to the many support services that exist in Ontario today. My parents just had the foresight to bring me up as “normally” as they could. They, and I, had to accept that I was given this life to live out. In a very real way, we need to develop reachable and sometimes unreachable goals. To quote Robert Browning, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp – or what’s a heaven for?” As we reach toward our own goals, we become living examples for others.

I was the third son born in a market gardening farming operation in southern Ontario. Memories come flowing over me when I think back over my youth. Memories of little lessons that made huge impressions, and they are a part of who I am today. Two outstanding lessons were: When my dad was teaching me how to plow, he put a stake at the end of the field and instructed me to not take my eyes off of that stake, but to drive the tractor straight toward it. The other, my two older brothers taught me on our creek. We often practiced steering out of skids which was so fun to do. The trick again, was to fix my eyes not on something which was moving around, but on something fixed ahead. No matter what the skid was doing, my eyes were fastened. When I think about the real meaning of having stakes or goals, it is what we focus on. In my own journey, there were countless stakes that I set my eyes upon, and  I was able to reach many of them. When it comes right down to it, there are very few unmovable stakes throughout our existence. Things change, circumstances alter. We don’t have the master steering wheel. However, I usually think of the unmovable stakes in life as how we view our own lives—our outlook, our attitude—which determines how we cultivate and carve out our pathway. With any life, especially if a disability is involved, it is so fragile. Very few of us can map out a route and stick to it. There are those bends, corners and hidden intersections that really get us. I deeply believe as a disabled person, if I can cultivate—and hopefully maintain—a spirit within that can withstand the twists and turns of living, the better and the richer I will be. I can then focus my energy on the things that I can change. Plus, I can be freed up to proclaim that disabilities are just skin deep. The real battle is fought and won in the inner person.   


This conference is about learning the skills and the lessons to enrich the communication of persons who need some form of Augmentative and Alternative Communication. When I started developing this presentation, I could not get over the overwhelming fact that I am using a real living, breathing form of Augmentative and Alternative Communication!  Without Dana’s good translational skills, the dialogue between us couldn’t take place! With her skills, I can talk through her to you. Dana, I bet you never before were made into an example of an alternative device. But just know that you far outweigh any of these devices. However, we can see the critical importance of having that bridge where people can be fully understood and fully accepted as individuals with identities of their own.

There are multiple communication aids both high tech and low tech. Probably as a global community, we have a huge candy store full of the latest greatest equipment. Just picture yourselves walking through the store. Technology everywhere, speech devices that speak so clearly! Fast and great access functionally. A dream world for your child, your students, your clients. However, you find yourself walking out, feeling a bit down. Just outside of the door, you see a low tech board and you start to wonder! You take it and begin to apply the skills which you have gained by attending conferences like this one. You see the horizon opening up for an individual because of that board. Your children start coming out of their shell and begin to reach out. You see it in their eyes. This is real communication! Don’t get fooled, communication is communication! Augmentative and Alternative Communication has to be taught one-on-one according to personalized need. Customized teaching for customized learning that leads to personalized skills.

I personally challenge you as I also challenge myself, to dare to dream new dreams and empower ourselves to make these dreams into reality. Be that dream weaver. Be that visionary, who makes pathways into super highways in this field because people are waiting for your leadership. The task is not an easy one! However, giving the gift of communication is critical and must take place here in Peru. Let’s go and physically see trapped minds open up and start blooming.



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