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Cornelius News

Cornelius resident Mary Elizabeth McEwen gives people a voice when they don’t have one

Communication Board at Bailey Road Park / Photo courtesy Mary Elizabeth McEwen

June 12. By Erica Batten. The playground at Bailey Road Park has a new feature that makes the play space more accessible to children with disabilities that affect their speech. The colorful new tool is called a communication board, and it’s an example of augmentative and alternative communication, or AAC.

“It’s a way to give a person a voice when they don’t have one,” said Mary Elizabeth McEwen, a pediatric speech-language pathologist and owner of Homefront Speech Therapy.

McEwen said that in the U.S. more than two million people, including those with autism, cerebral palsy, apraxia, and other conditions that affect speech, use AAC. She spearheaded the effort to have communication boards installed at three local parks: Bailey Road Park, North Mecklenburg Park in Huntersville, and Hope Park at the Lowe’s YMCA in Mooresville.

More coming

She is working to get boards in even more public spaces.


Installation of the boards was a joint effort of McEwen, the Mecklenburg and Iredell park and recreation departments, and Channing’s Joy, a Charlotte-based nonprofit that raises awareness of autism. The boards were manufactured by Smarty Symbols, which creates flashcards, games, and other AAC materials.

The communication board has pictures and corresponding words to represent common words and phrases, and—just like regular speech—it’s a two-way communication tool. A child who is unable to speak may point to the symbols for food. The friend or parent using the board with them then vocalizes communication about that symbol, such as asking “Are you hungry?” or talking about types of food.

Happily, the board also includes notes on how to use it effectively. For parents and other caregivers of children with speech disabilities, the board is a gentle introduction to AAC.

Learning playfully

“The presence of this board will help make it feel more familiar, comfortable and less scary when it’s suggested that their child begins using AAC,” said McEwen. Its strategic location on a playground supports the research that children learn best through play. Authors of a 2023 book called “A Pedagogy of Play” explain that in playful learning, children explore, lead their own learning, and, ultimately, connect learning with joy.

As she has connected with children through speech therapy, McEwen has also enjoyed the learning process, particularly problem-solving when children have multiple disabilities.

“I feel like my eyes have been continually opened to the fact that these kids are created with purpose and have deep value in this world.” McEwen said. “It drives me crazy when people write kids off as ‘too this’ or ‘too that’ just because they may not speak.”

The board at Bailey Road Park was installed in May and has already drawn visitors’ attention.

“Many people are simply ignorant [of] people with disabilities,” McEwen said. “My hope is that this can help be the beginning of increased community awareness, inclusion and pave the way to making public spaces more accessible.”

After almost a decade of experience in her field—and having three children of her own—McEwen would say that her own awareness has shifted as well.

“I have learned so much from the amazing children I work with, but most of all to always presume competence, always presume potential and never misinterpret not being able to speak with not having anything to say,” she said.