What Do We Mean by the Term “Presume Competence”?

I just read a very thought-provoking discussion between some SLPs on an ASHA discussion forum and thought of sharing my thoughts with you. Frequently in the schools (in case and intervention discussions), we hear about the importance of “presuming competence” of a particular child or individual. As we reflect on this term, however, it quickly becomes clear that there is very little consensus on what this term really means.

Some of us older folk (big smile) cringe a bit when we hear the term, due to its strong association with the Facilitated Communication (FC) movement and the problems associated with it. I do think, however, that it is important to separate our discussion of the term from past associations with it to allow us to re-examine what we mean by the term.

The basic dilemma with the term relates to the idea that presume competence means that you have to assume the person can do or develop skills and hence, not limit the individual by being too restrictive in what you expect of them. For example, one of the participants in the ASHA discussion wrote: “I have asked some of these people [who used the term presume competence] directly and have confirmed that ‘yes’ some people think I am limiting my students by putting them on a smaller grid size. It’s very important to me to uphold the ASHA Code of Ethics; and the term presume competence, at least how some people are using it around where I live, is in direct conflict with code M. My decisions are data-driven using evidence-based practices.”.

This definition of the term as used here seems to imply that all individuals have the same potential and ability to learn and communicate. Clearly, this is an untenable and false assertion. Carole Zangari, however ,has a slightly different interpretation:

Start by presuming that your client is a learner on his/her way to developing competence. Good intervention, consistent language models, the right tools, and plenty of practice will move them along the journey toward improved communication. It’s important that, as clinicians, we truly believe that. Yes, your clients may be impaired, perhaps significantly so, but they will certainly know if you don’t believe in their abilities. Presume competence.

— Carole Zangari, Ph.D., CCC-SLP [source]. Presume competence as used by Carole in this instance is more closely in line with Presume Potential (for learning), which most of us will agree with.

It is important, though, to realize why this term presume competence (presume potential and other similar terms) re-surfaces in our field: this concept is a strong call for vigilance in questioning our own measurements and assumptions of the level of functioning of the individuals we work with on a continual basis. It is too easy for interventionists and teachers to limit a child’s ability to learn by restricting opportunities to learn and—in the AAC world—this means restricting the child in terms of the range of concepts s/he has access to in communicating.

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