The more functional skills an individual possesses, the more independently that person can function in their daily life. Brown, Branston, Hamre-Nietupski, Pumpian, Certo, & Gruenewald (1979) indicated that functional skills were those required to function independently in the natural environment. If someone cannot perform functional skills independently, someone else (a communication partner, or significant other etc.) must assist to accomplish these goals and tasks. Examples of functional skills would include; making meals, taking a shower, washing clothes or calling a doctor to make an appointment. Functional skill development is the foundation of best practices in the field of disabilities.
Communication is a major functional skill. When an individual cannot communicate, often their communication partners assist with prompts and interpretations. When this occurs, the individual with the disability is not communicating independently. Additionally, given this situation, it is not possible to determine if the message source is truly the disabled individual or the significant other.
The notion of "communication independence" is based on the observation that individuals with severe disabilities often depend upon significant others to send messages. In some cases, significant others play "20 questions" to determine wants, needs, and desires. Examples include;
"Do you want to play outside or inside?"
"Do you need to use the bathroom?"
"Who do you want me to call?"
Other times, partners prompt the individual to say certain things. For example;
"Tell the lady you want a short haircut."
Significant others translate information to third parties, and also to themselves. For example;
"When he makes that face, I know he wants to go home."
These communication exchanges reveal the need for a model of communication independence for individuals with severe disabilities. To be effective, intervention to foster and promote independent communication must include partners, and partners may need to change their expectations and strategies. In fact, partners often have no expectation for independent communication.
Partners often over-use questions, prompts, and interpretations because they believe they need these props to bolster communication with the individual. However, the Communication Independence Model (Gillette, 2003) suggests strategies such as commenting, waiting, and modeling should occur more frequently than questioning, prompting, and interpreting. Many individuals with severe disabilities can participate more fully -- once their partners alter their communication strategies and expectations.
The Communication Independence Model provides a strategy for assessing communication opportunities and skills, then planning for opportunity and skill growth. In this way, independent communication can evolve within everyday communication opportunities. When clients have severe communication disabilities, speech-language pathologists (SLPs) should consider a contextual, interactive approach to developing communication relationships with existing partners, and the SLP should assess existing communication opportunities and client skills within everyday contexts.