Assistive Tech and Communication
Assistive technology comes in many forms and is extremely beneficial to those with disabilities; especially those who have communication challenges. "The Technology Related Assistance to Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988 (Tech Act) first described an assistive technology device as "any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities."" (Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center). There are many different types of assistive technology that can help someone with something as simple as recording a lecture or calculating a math problem, to devices that help non-verbal individuals communicate with the world. There are countless apps that can assist individuals with almost any task, and many tactile resources as well. For this project I will focus on the types of assistive technologies that help individuals with their communication needs.
How Does Assistive Tech Help with Communication?
Assistive technology has such a diverse range of benefits to individuals, however, one of the most common uses for assistive technology is in communication. For those who cannot communicate on their own life is very tough in that they are often misunderstood because they cannot get their ideas, wishes/wants, and needs out to others. That being said, without communication it can be difficult to know when someone needs help or is in pain. Not to mention that not being able to communicate makes it difficult to form relationships and friendships with people, an aspect of life that everyone should be entitled to. "Everyone has the desire and the ability to communicate despite physical and neurological challenges" (The Center for AAC and Autism). A person's quality of life is greatly impacted by their ability to communicate. The types of technology that help individuals with communication are augmentative communication devices, eye gaze, switches, and low-tech items such as visual schedules and models. For this website I will focus on augmentative communication devices, eye gaze, and switches.
Augmentative Communication Devices (Tablets, iPads)
"Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) includes all forms of communication (other than oral speech) that are used to express thoughts, needs, wants, and ideas. We all use AAC when we make facial expressions or gestures, use symbols or pictures, or write" (Pitt Hopkins Research Foundation). Depending on the needs of the individual there are various types of programs and applications one can use on an iPad or a tablet. Individuals can purchase these programs and set them up on their own, or they can obtain them through the use of a communication therapist at a school, a program, or any other type of services that someone may receive. Some of examples of applications that can be downloaded are "TouchChat", "Proloquo", and "LAMP". These are all essential versions of the same thing and serve the same purposes. These applications have simple pictures with words that when selected, read them out loud. Combinations of words and sentences can be created through these programs giving users the ability to carry on conversations and express themselves through the use of a device. These applications are very useful to people who are non-verbal, or those who have speech but may be hard to understand. If started young children grow up with the same program or application and use it till adulthood (if necessary) so that they can learn the consistent location of the images and words.
"Eye tracking, or gaze interaction, is a technology that is used to see where a person is looking on a computer screen. The technology can also be used to control a computer with your eyes instead of using a traditional keyboard and mouse" (tobiidynavox.com). Eye gaze systems are a relatively new concept that has just recently taken off to help. Eye gaze systems are sensors that can attach to computers, iPads, tablets and a variety of other devices. They are sensors that are programmed to each individual that uses them and can pick up on eye movements. Individuals who use this system select things like a mouse with their eyes. Users dwell or focus on one specific thing for a predetermined amount of time and then a click happens and the object is selected.Eye gaze is extremely beneficial to those with significant disabilities who don't have the use of their hands. This device gives them the opportunity to potentially communicate with others when connected to a communication device. Used with a communication device eye gaze users can communicate using the variety of speech apps I discussed above. They can form phrases and sentences and then have them read out loud just as if someone was to use their hands to control a device. Eye gaze is a very viable option for many individuals with significant special needs as it provides them a way to communicate when they otherwise may not be able to.
Switches serve many uses for children with severe special needs. They can not only help individuals communicate, but they can also help with choice making and play. Switches are a very helpful for those who are non-verbal or have low motor coordination. Switches can be activated by pressing down on the top with a part of the body; this can include one's hand, elbow, knee, or head. Switches can be used for communication in a number of ways. One can record a simple message on a switch and then give it to the child to activate. The message will then play out loud giving the child a way to participate and feel part of a conversation. Some of the recorded messages could be "Hello", singing happy birthday, or asking simple questions like "how are you?". Switches are also a great tool to teach decision making. You could use two switches side by side and ask the child to make a choice of which one they want. If each have a different recorded item on them they can hear both choices and then select the one they want. Additionally there are some switches that are two part; one that scans allowing you to choose an item from the screen, and the other allowing you to select an item. This can be used with a program such as "ChooseitMaker" where teachers or specialists can create activities with multiple choices for their students to do. One last way that switches can help with communication is through the simple act of signaling a choice or a decision for some people. If one records the message "I want a turn", or "I want that one" they are able to speak up for themselves and signal to others when they want something or that they have a preference. Switches are a great piece of assistive technology because they give individuals the opportunity to take part in conversations and allow for choice making in a less complex way as compared to using eye gaze or a speech device.