• Catherine Hennessy wolter

Taking the "Luck" Factor Out of Access to Disability Services

Updated: Nov 15, 2019

One of the news stories that went viral over summer 2019 involved a serendipitous airplane encounter between American speech-language pathologist Rachel Romeo and two strangers assigned to sit in her row: a roughly 10-year-old nonverbal child and his father.

Although Romeo wasn’t sure what part of the world the two were from, she had the distinct sense that it was someplace that didn’t provide the extensive range of disability services that children and families have ready access to in the U.S. Multiple news outlets—including the Washington Post—reported on the child’s inability to verbally communicate during the flight and the clear distress that it caused, at one point leading the boy to “to scream, hit her [Romeo], and rock back and forth.”


What made the story go viral was the seeming miracle that took place next: over the course of an eight-hour plane ride, the speech-language pathologist worked with the child and his father and was able to move the boy from a world of isolation to a place where he could make at least his basic intentions understood without needing spoken language.

To do this, Romeo introduced the child and his father to a nonverbal means of communication that relies on simple visual images—a method that falls under the umbrella of “augmentative and alternative communication,” or AAC.


The threesome’s time together was short and their resources were scarce, but Romeo reported that the boy’s anxious state quickly calmed as he began to comprehend and actively use Romeo’s improvised hand-drawn pictures of the boy’s father, a toy the boy had with him on the plane, and so on. In the news reports, this is where the story ends. Romeo wished the best to the boy and his father, and expressed her hope that they would continue to build on the visual symbol-based system of communication.


The story of the plane ride tugs on all the right heartstrings: chance cross-cultural encounters, the kindness of strangers, and children whose difficult lives get better; however, its immediate feel-good effect distracts from questions that disability rights advocates wish readers would ask.

Why did it take a chance airplane ride and a lucky seating assignment for this child and his father to receive basic information on AAC? How can we design very basic training tools like those Romeo made to reach children across the world who don’t have adequate access to disability services? Which disability education topics can be converted into simple training tools, and which are simply too complex? And how can we best deliver concrete disability training tools to people in the developing world who lack Romeo’s highly privileged educational background—including teachers without special education backgrounds and parents of children with disabilities?


Disability Support International is working to address these questions through our newly-established Advisory Working Group.

Our Advisory Working Group is made up of professionals who specialize in areas that range from occupational therapy, to special education, to international development and law. Its members meet one Saturday each month with the goal of designing highly accessible, targeted, and practical disability education training modules and tools. The tasks before this group range from determining which disability topics can successfully be addressed through basic trainings to designing training curriculum that will work for audiences who are not comfortably literate. Everything the Advisory Working Group members design will be tailored for use by teachers and parents in places like Cambodia.

What happened between Romeo and the boy on the airplane was not, in fact, a miracle. It was merely an example of how the quality of life experienced by people with disabilities can quickly improve when they and members of their community have access to trainings and resources like those our Advisory Working Group are designing.


Interested in supporting the DSI’s Advisory Working Group? Please consider donating the cost of coffee for the members of the Advisory Working Group, or to help offset the cost of some of these members’ travels to Cambodia in summer 2020, when we’ll conduct pilot training sessions with these new tools: https://secure.givelively.org/donate/disability-support-international/fund-a-need .
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