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A Communication Aid for Sam



Sam is a mobile and sociable 14 year-old. He has learning difficulties and little/no intelligible speech but is highly communicative through gesture and signs, and has some basic literacy. Sam was recently moved from an academic to a more ‘LifeSkills’ curriculum. CALL assessment indicated that he needed a high tech voice output communication aid (VOCA) and also low tech communication aid(s) and intervention to support his signing.

The challenge

Identifying a suitable VOCA was a challenge. Because he is mobile a ‘palmtop’ device seemed desirable, but Sam did not ‘take to’ this type of device. It was clear that Sam would not use a very simple communication aid because he needed a large vocabulary, liked to control his own topics of conversation, was used to typing and liked to use a keyboard (although his reading and spelling are severely limited and he uses over-learned text in a repetitive way).

Our approach

We were looking for a system that could offered a mixture of pre-stored phrases for rapid social communication, a large personalised symbol vocabulary with sentence-building facilities and an onscreen keyboard. The software of choice was The Grid 2 which is one of the few systems that offers symbol-supported word prediction – ie. as Sam started to type a word that he almost certainly would not be able to spell beyond the first letter or two, a set of correctly spelled word predictions comes up with symbols. Although he could not have recognised the word he wanted from a list of written words that all looked similar, Sam can quickly and easily spot the right word by its symbol ‘clue’. This gives him two possible routes to communication – selecting a symbol from topic based vocabulary pages, or trying to ‘write’ it himself even though he can’t spell well enough to do so under his own steam.

The voice output device chosen was a FuturePad tablet/touchscreen PC with a bright 17.5 x 13 cm screen, boosted battery and amplification/speaker, a solid state hard disk (no moving parts to break) and with rubber bumpers to protect it. It is pretty lightweight (1.3Kg) and can be carried on a shoulder strap. This is a sort of ‘half-way house’ between a handheld device and a full size VOCA or laptop.

Impact

Sam was also provided with an A5 ‘Conversation Book’, full of words relevant to his own busy life. It mainly consists of people’s names and places (large family, many friends and different activities) which are always the hardest things for a communication partner to ‘guess’ correctly. This is a cross between a Personal Passport (in that it provides conversation partners with vital background and context) and a Communication Book (in that it provides a ‘bank’ of important words, organized for easy recognition, that Sam can point to as a back up, if he gets stuck using speech, gesture/sign or VOCA).