What is Presumed Competence?

Updated: Mar 10, 2018

There’s a buzzword in the AAC community that you should know about: presumed competence.

Get familiar with it, because it’s incredibly important that we understand and embrace it. It’s a message that’s at the foundation of everything we do when we work with users of AAC. In face, we presume competence when with work with humans in general!

So, let’s dive in!

What is presumed competence?

Well, let’s break down the phrase:

  • presume = to assume without making a you-know-what out of you and me

  • competences = abilities

In short, we start out by assuming someone has the ability to do something.

If we presume competence now, what did we used to do?

Traditionally, a person’s abilities and competencies had been judged based on their intelligence. In other words, if a person had a low IQ, we knew they weren’t going to amount to much, and could set low expectations.

We also used to think that a diagnosis told us exactly what a person would be able to do. For example, if a new student came in with a diagnosis of Down syndrome, I could and would know exactly what the student would enjoy, what tasks would be challenging, what the child would need, and when the child would “max out” in development. Let me be very clear: Diagnosis DOES NOT indicate a limit on progress and success!!! Diagnoses may provide a clearer understanding of potential needs and allow us to be proactive in treatments and therapies, but it most certainly does NOT give us a ceiling.

What does the research say about presuming competence?

Surely, we can all agree that presuming competence of individuals who uses AAC is the ethical and humane way to work, but we need data to support our methodology. As an SLP, I believe in science as a tool and a guide. When all else fails, hit the books! In light of that, what does the research say about presumed competence?

Well… we have research all the way from 1948 (Merton), which shows that the thoughts and expectations of teachers impact the progress of their students. They call this a “self-fulfilling prophecy” because the students only meeting the lowered expectations set by the teachers.

Another study (Clark, 1997) talks about teachers’ expectations based on the diagnoses of students. Clark found that when teachers were given information about a student’s disability category, they made assumptions that students with disabilities were expected to fail more often than their peers, in part because of their disability.

This has been studied on the flip-side as well. When teachers were told that students in their classroom were expected to make a great amount of progress, those students made greater-than-expected progress throughout the year (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968).

Soto (1997) examines this through an AAC lens. She found that the perceptions and expectations of teachers strongly affected the self-perceptions and self-expectations of their students.

In other words, the way we think about our kids strongly affects the way our kids think about themselves.

This is where presumed competence comes into play.

Presumed competence follows the philosophy that the assumptions and expectations of the adults, caregivers, and teachers directly affect and influence the progress and self-images of users of AAC.

How does presumed competence affect users of AAC?

Let’s think about how this affects our users of AAC. Research has shown the following:

  1. If teachers/caretakers have positive expectations and presumptions about individuals using AAC, they are likely to perform better and have better views of themselves.

  2. If teachers/caretakers have limiting expectations and presumptions about users of AAC, they are not likely to perform to their potential and are less likely to have a positive self-image.

We also know that progress and self-image work together in a cycle. Our self-image affects our progress (i.e., If the person’s self-talk says, “I’m never going to get this,” they are not likely to get it!). In turn, our progress affects our self-image (i.e., If a person is consistently not making progress, they are not likely to have a positive self-image).

But what else is at stake?

There is a serious gravity towards making decisions with limited expectations about individuals who use AAC. With this mindset, adults make decisions about IEP goals and objectives, placement decisions, inclusion opportunities, vocabulary choices, AAC file selection (i.e., topic board vs. a robust system), academic paths (i.e., traditional academics vs. a vocational path), and so much more. In other words, if we doubt that a child is capable of going very far, there is no reason to include him with his peers. If he’s only expected to communicate in predetermined, limited settings (i.e., only at circle time), there’s no reason to provide him with a robust vocabulary system. If this child isn’t expected to learn to read, he will not be presented with the opportunity to try!!

Look at how much is affected by the way we think!!!

Moral of the story: Presumed competence matters!

Take a look at some of the personal definitions of this phrase:

“It means to stop whispering to colleagues that a student is ‘cognitively low.’”

- Kristin VanVorce James, AT Consultant

“Just because YOU might not know how to help them, doesn't mean they CAN'T. We can't confuse our incompetence for their competence. They can and they will if we believe they can and we take the steps to get them there.”

- Deborah Arroyo-Salas, SLP

“I’m going to assume you’re as competent as I can help you to be… By presuming competence, I put the full onus, the full responsibility of educating this child or helping this adult in their group home be more communicative on me.”

Susan H. Norwell, ATACP

“Presumed competence is really about allowing possibilities; allowing that these people that are using AAC could achieve what their peers can achieve. It’s just about finding the right way for them to do that.”

- Callie Ward, PGCE

“There is a lot that may be locked away. I may not be the one who finds the right key, but I will at least continue filling that box and advocating for you until the key is found. It means I will attempt to motivate you and explore with you rather than simply training you to respond to stimuli because communication is more than achieving data points and completing a certain number of trials to mastery. I will respect you and connect with you. When you have the intent and motivation and will to communicate, the tools will all be ready for your use because we will have continued to fill it with you and your best interest at heart hoping someday that key will turn. In the mean time, I will not limit you to what others may think would fit inside the box.”

- Natalie Karr, SLP

I like to sum it up this way:

Presumed competence means trusting that I can do it, without making me prove it.

It’s our job to make this happen.

Spread the word. Advocate. Presume competence.


Amanda ML Samperi

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