Losing Language in the Communication Age
Our lives have become dependent on instant communication. We spend every waking hour talking and texting, so it is hard to imagine a scenario in which you suddenly lose the ability to speak, write, and comprehend what you hear and read. This is called “aphasia” – the loss of language – and most often it is a result of a stroke, traumatic brain injury (TBI), or other neurological condition. Aphasia is not a well-known condition, possibly because our fast-paced, communication-driven culture does not recognize individuals who cannot speak up. Personally, I only learned about aphasia when my husband had a severe stroke resulting in significant loss of his language.
June is National Aphasia Awareness Month, an annual observance meant to build awareness around a relatively unknown condition. Approximately one million people in the United States are living with aphasia, making Aphasia more common than Parkinson’s disease, cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy.
Like my husband, most people with aphasia can recover many of their language abilities through speech therapy, continuing to make gains many months and years after their stroke or TBI. The National Institute on Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders support research to better understand aphasia, improve treatment, and discover new methods to restore lost function. In recent years, a “group” approach to treatment has gained credibility as the social dynamics of the group contribute to improving the individual’s communication skills. Groups also provide a more affordable setting, given the limits to insurance coverage for rehabilitation services.
Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices can be used by people with aphasia to assist in communicating. These devices can be “low tech” cards with pictures or icons that the individual can point to. They can be more advanced tools like computerized portable devices, software, or applications (apps) for tablets and smart phones that display icons, store common phrases, provide text-to-speech and speech-to-text, record conversations for later playback, provide video-chat, and other functions to aid communications.
My husband’s reading comprehension improves immensely when he can simultaneously hear and see the words. He uses simple text-to-speech software on his computer that highlights the text as it reads it aloud. Texting messages works better than a phone conversation when we are scheduling things, or one of us is at the store. He uses other apps on his phone, like a dictionary and Wikipedia to help him contribute to a discussion.
We have found that one of the most beneficial aids to communicating for a person with aphasia is an interested and somewhat patient listener who recognizes that having aphasia means losing speech, not intellect nor opinions.
To learn more about National Aphasia Awareness Month, and aphasia, visit:
- American Stroke Association’s aphasia page
- NINDS aphasia information page
- National Aphasia Association FAQs
- Group treatment for aphasia at the Stroke Comeback Center
- Aphasia apps for tablets and smart phones from the National Stroke Association.
Stephanie Mensh is a Senior Analyst who has expertise in Medicaid, Medicare and health insurance reimbursement policies; supportive services for independent living; and housing programs for people with disabilities and chronic conditions.