CommuniKate for change

Written by Kerrie Alexander

Kate Wilson is leaving a positive mark in the world of disabilities by helping to break the cycle of discrimination and social stigma and educate others to see beyond a label.

The 24-year-old with a heart of gold has had compassion for people who have a disability from a young age, starting with her cousin Josie who is living with Prada-Willi syndrome; a rare genetic disorder affecting development and growth.

In her hometown of England, Kate would see her cousin and other people with a disability pushed aside as outcasts at school and in the community.

It was that burning desire to make change happen that led Kate to a career as an Occupational Therapist now working in the disability sector.

“I have witnessed people treating others disrespectfully and laughing at them … to me it’s just the worst thing,” Kate said. “I saw this culture of people thinking “they can’t do much, they have a disability” and it just didn’t feel right to me.

After gaining university qualifications to become an OT, Kate’s journey started at a hospital in England. Kate has a passion for working with people with disabilities who have limited verbal communication. After completing research and discovering the devastating statistics that on average 1200 people with an intellectual disability die prematurely in UK hospitals because of avoidable reasons, this led Kate to develop a disability awareness training program called Disability Redefined that she delivered to the allied health staff at the hospital where she worked.

She learned Makaton which was added to this training. Makaton is a unique language programme – popular throughout the UK – that uses symbols, signs and speech to enable people to communicate. It supports the development of essential communication skills like attention and listening, comprehension, memory, recall and organisation of language and expression.

The idea was that teaching the allied health team would enable them to communicate basic concepts to patients who have an intellectual disability, who most likely would have learnt Makaton when growing up.

This would enable patients to express their needs using Makaton signing and symbols and be better understood.

“Communication is a fundamental need for people,” Kate said.

“For me, starting the program was about trying to use empathy provoking situations to teach people about disability awareness.

“I knew Makaton was quite commonly taught to people with an intellectual disability so I wanted to add that into the training to move our understanding as a team of health care professionals to the next level.

“The overall hope was that this might help to reduce the amount of premature and avoidable deaths within hospitals by raising awareness of a common communication system that is used with this population.”

It was found in research, that for people with profound intellectual disabilities who are commonly nonverbal, prognosis and diagnosis can be delayed which may lead to premature death.

Kate was interested in conveying to the staff the challenges of expressing choice when someone has limited verbal communication.

“We know the universal sign for drink but how could you go to the next step and say orange juice or coffee if you don’t know that vocabulary.

“Makaton isn’t the answer for all of this, but it was certainly useful as a conversation starter around disability awareness and how we can increase our understanding and skills as treating professionals.”

Looking to spread her wings and discover the world, Kate travelled to America and worked at a special needs summer camp where she coordinated the day to day program.

She then made the move to Hervey Bay over a year ago and is now a disability OT for Attain Abilities – a job she relishes in.

During a two-week quarantine after the move, Kate took the Makaton program one step further and created a Facebook page called CommuniKate that now has over 740 followers.

It’s a place where she can share her Makaton signing with the community by putting up videos of simple signs and the meaning.

“It’s typically used in the intellectual disability population or for people who are non-verbal or even pre-verbal … some people use Makaton communication with babies or more recently in the UK with people with dementia.

“With Makaton, signs are used with speech in spoken word order.

“You usually sign the key-words whilst speaking the sentence. For example, if I’m saying ‘hello my name is kate’ I would sign it as ‘hello my name kate’ whilst speaking the sentence. This ensures that the speech and sign go together to create more information for the communication partner. Also, using symbols can help people who have limited speech and those who cannot, or prefer not to sign.
“I really have a heart for communication, and this is just something that I know was commonly used in the UK so I wanted to learn it.”

Kate now thrives in her role as an OT and is continuing to be a passionate advocate for empowerment of people with disabilities, promoting individuality and independence.

“My cousin really inspired me … she is a wonderful woman, and a lot of people might disregard her because of her disability. “I think the whole idea of the Disability Redefined program was about having a conversation about disability and redefining the way the world sees people with a disability.

“A lot of people have more skills than they are given credit for and it’s naturally so much easier for others to do things for people, I guess that’s why I became an OT.

“I love to see people encouraged and supported to engage in every aspect of life, accomplish things and to not be defined by a label.

“We live in this fast-paced society where everything is ‘quick, quick I’ll do it for you because it’s easier’.

“Even if it’s just brushing teeth or making a sandwich, no matter how long it takes, I have seen the beauty of watching people be encouraged and supported to complete these tasks and feel a sense of accomplishment.

“I hope to encourage others to see behind labels and not be scared of disability, rather to actively engage in everyday conversations with people who may have a disability. We might just find that we aren’t as different as we thought.”

Visit the CommuniKate Facebook page to find out more about Makaton and see just how passionate Kate is about making a change.