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Struggling to communicate: let’s help the hundreds of thousands of Europeans living with aphasia

Communication is the building block of human life. It’s not just words and sentences; it’s what binds us together and makes us who we are. Communication can be as simple as eye contact that says, ‘hey, I know you’re there’, and as complex as the interactions that govern nations and bind international communities together, writes Kathryn Cann.

Formats of communicating are becoming forever more diverse as we strive to share our thoughts and ideas: blogs, forums, Twitter and Facebook have joined the traditional newspapers, letters, telephone calls and the good old fashioned ‘chat’.

Communication says so much about us: who we are, what we think, what we want; our wishes, our thoughts, our dreams. It helps us understand information, make informed choices and give our opinion. Communication is the currency by which we impact on the world and how it impacts on us.

Imagine if you suddenly lost that.

One day you’re living in your colorful verbal world maintaining a myriad of relationships. Then, like a bolt out of the blue, it’s all stripped away. That’s what happens when a stroke or head injury causes damage to the language centre in your brain.

This is the story of thousands of people across Europe with aphasia. In Europe, statistics suggest 0.37% of the population live with aphasia .1 That is 300,000 people in Germany, 142,000 in Poland, 40,000 in Greece.1 It’s a difficult condition, life-changing, yet there are many things we can do as a society to make things better for people with aphasia: communication is a partnership. It takes two to communicate. We can make positive changes to improve communication access for people with specific communication impairments.

Durham, UK, is piloting a pioneering program to improve Aphasia Awareness in its community. Aphasia is the name given to the difficulty understanding and saying words and sentences, a condition caused by stroke or a brain injury that affects a person’s ability to process and use language.  It does not affect intelligence. In the UK over 250,000 people live with aphasia2 and face the challenge of participating in a community that doesn’t understand them and misinterprets them as drunk or stupid.

County Durham and Darlington NHS Trust and the Stroke Association have joined forces to provide an Aphasia Aware training program for local businesses and services within Durham City.  The training provides businesses with tools and techniques to help customers, including learning strategies such as: giving time, using gesture, facial expression, showing, pointing and helping with money management. Participating businesses then display an Aphasia aware decal in their shop windows and keep flash cards detailing supportive communication techniques by their service points. People with aphasia are given an identification card to show in these shops, alerting the person in the store to the fact they have aphasia.

Sounds simple? It is!

We put wheelchair ramps and lifts into our communities to provide access for people with physical disabilities. It makes the difference between them accessing the store or not. Communication ramps, such as those used in the Aphasia Aware Scheme, do the same thing. They support access to the community for people with communication impairments by giving confidence and reassurance and removing fear of embarrassment and misperception.

This type of scheme, highlighting awareness, is life changing for people with aphasia and other communication difficulties.

In the UK, the Disability Discrimination Act states that all businesses must take ‘reasonable measures’ to make their business accessible to people with specific needs, and, failure to do so is discrimination unless it can be justified.

Can we justify not making attempts to support communication access?

Kathryn Cann is Clinical Lead for Communications, Adult Speech and Language Therapy Department at County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust in the UK. You can contact Kathy at 

References: (April 2014)


  1. I think communication ramps are the most valuable support there can be for any human who has difficulties in expressing their needs, and ideas with others. The scheme is a really great initiative.

    Comment by S. Martys on July 16, 2014 at 9:26 pm
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