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What is a Communication Aid?

A communication aid helps a person to communicate more effectively with those around them. These aids range from simple letter boards to sophisticated pieces of computer equipment.

If you're absolutely new to the subject of communication aids, this article gives a brief and basic overview:

Communication charts, books etc

Effective communication for the non-speaker can often be achieved by pointing with a finger or the eyes to words, photos and symbols contained in communication books, charts and boards. A major plus is that they can be used in any environment. An example of a communication book, shown above, was created by a child's parents and carers. It consists of a number of pages containing words and symbols that have been grouped together in topics - toys, bathtime, meals etc. It takes careful planning for such a system to be really effective, so the ACE Centre have written a guide to developing communication books.

Words and symbols

It’s not essential for the user to be able to read text in order to use a communication aid. Many aids present the user with symbols which can relate a full range of spoken vocabulary. There are many types of symbol 'vocabularies' - some fairly pictorial (like the example here), and some fairly abstract. It's fairly common to use show the word along with it's related symbol in order to avoid ambiguity.

Communication aids that speak

These aids use two types of 'voice' - artificial or pre-recorded - to speak letters, words or phrases that the user has chosen. By artificial, we mean computer-generated speech which, thankfully, is nowhere near as robotic as it used to be. You can listen to samples of the sort of voices that are available at Sensory Software's website.

Nearly all speaking communication aids can play back pre-recorded speech which, as it's name suggests, consists of single words or phrases that have been recorded by a human speaking into a microphone (usually on the aid itself).

Types of speaking communication aid

In theory, even a speaking birthday card is a form of communication aid, but in practice the simplest speaking aids are sturdy battery-powered devices whose single message lasts for a few seconds and can be re-recorded as many times as needed by speaking into a microphone built into the unit. These straightforward aids are invaluable for passing messages and teaching cause & effect. In the picture on the left, a child is using a single-message device to join in the reading of a book that has a repeated phrase in its text.

More complex speaking aids tend to have their words and phrases stored in 'levels'. The aid on the left appears to have just four messages that are spoken by pressing the large touchpads. In fact it has 20 stored messages - the two small green arrow buttons at the top of the aid can jump between five 'levels', each containing four messages. Each time a new level is selected, a different paper overlay containing the relevant set of four symbols has to be inserted.

When hundreds of words need to be available, paper overlays become impractical. This is where the more expensive high-tech communication aids step in - many display their message 'buttons' on touchscreens, rather than paper overlays. The screen can change at the press of a finger to reveal a new screen containing a different set of messages.

These high-tech talking devices (an example is pictured on the left) have much more to offer than just a 'dynamic' screen, however. Some are modified notebook or handheld computers, and offer all the advantages and features that you would expect from such machines (internet, email, word processing etc). Others have been purposely built for the job. All, however, have three things in common - they offer hundreds (if not thousands) of spoken messages, they run specialised communication software, and they primarily use artificial speech. The example pictured here is typical of such aids in that it has a colour touchscreen, communication software to suit a wide range of abilities, onscreen 'keyboards' for literate users, plus the capability to control other equipment such as a mobile phone, a computer, and environmental devices (doors, TV, etc). Prices are generally in the thousands.

Using a communication aid

There are a suprising number of ways to operate these aids. The most obvious method to access the stored speech is by pressing buttons or a touchscreen on the aid to trigger a spoken word or message, but this might not be possible for individuals with physical disabilities. Switches and other specialised equipment are available that allow access through any controllable movement of the body. And that’s not just limb movement, it includes head control, sucking and blowing - even eye movement alone.

But just how do you select a message with a switch? With single-message aids it's straightforward - plug in a switch, and press it. For aids with, say, four messages, there's usually a facility where the aid will automatically 'scan' the message buttons one-by-one, highlighting them in turn with a light above or around each button. When the indicator light for the required message is lit, the user hits the switch to select it. In the picture above, two switches are being used - the first switch moves the highlighter across the messages, and the second switch selects the message.

These scanning methods also work with touchscreen-based communication aids, but here the messages, words or letters can be arranged in a grid. You can see this sort of scanning in action at www.switchscanning.org.uk. This opens up all sorts of scanning possibilities, especially if two switches are used. There's some great video clips of such 'alternative' access at www.assistiveware.com/videos.php

Choosing a communication aid

It's asolutely vital that an assessment is carried out before a communication aid is chosen, and we're not saying that to drum up business for ourselves! It's essential to build up an accurate picture of a person's abilities before trying to identify a suitable communication aid. We believe that this is best done through a multidisciplinary assessment, where variables such as seating, mobility, access, motivation, educational needs and cognitive levels are all taken into account.

It also makes sense to try out a communication aid before making a decision about purchase. Sometimes the children that we assess trial quite a few aids from our extensive loan library of equipment before making a final decision. Their skills change over time too - as does technology - so the suitability of an aid needs to be regularly reviewed.

Once a communication aid has been purchased, everyone involved with the children - teachers, carers, therapists - will need to know how to use the aid suitably and effectively, and here we can offer help through our training service.

Terminology

Communication aids of any flavour come under the umbrella term of AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication). You might also hear of talking communication aids being referred to as Speech Output Devices or sometimes as VOCAs (Voice Output Communication Aids).