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EXPLORING ADVANCES IN AUGMENTATIVE AND ALTERNATIVE COMMUNICATION (AAC)

Updated: Feb 26

Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) is growing in popularity but still feels like a misunderstood and underutilised resource in the disability community. AAC digital devices enable non-verbal members of the community to speak with the use of technology.


EXPLORING ADVANCES IN AUGMENTATIVE AND ALTERNATIVE COMMUNICATION (AAC)

More than an advancement in technology, these devices, for many, represent a step forward in the disability rights movement, giving many disabled persons a voice that was never expressed. AAC continues to offer a richer quality of life for many. With the NDIS (National Disability Insurance Scheme) availability, it has become significantly more accessible for people.

Shannon Maher is a senior Speech Pathologist from Ally Assist passionate about the field of AAC. She first began working with the CP (Cerebral Palsy) population after graduating from The University of Queensland, when she worked for The Cerebral Palsy League (now, CPL). "I was thrown right into AAC with that role, with ninety percent of my clients requiring some form of AAC ... I was so lucky in that role to have access to a wide range of in-clinic support and resources," says Shannon.


She adds, "being part of moments where clients get to communicate new things with their loved ones for the first time is incredibly special."

AAC trials are becoming more accessible through companies like Liberator, Zyteq, and Link Assistive Technology. Practices are one of the most critical components of prescribing AAC to determine the best fit for the client at the assessment time and to consider the client’s needs in the future.


However, AAC technology still has certain obstacles, such as time lags and voice donors. This feature enables users to have more distinct voices instead of the robotic voice simulation that is typically used. To discuss the latest developments in AAC technology.   Shannon sat down with CPSN to discuss the barriers and progress of the AAC world.  How have AAC, particularly high-tech communication devices, progressed in the last decade? I.e., eye gaze technology, etc.


I feel we have seen a shift from using mid-tech options to using iPads and high-tech options due to increased accessibility on the general market. More tech companies are starting to incorporate eye-gaze software into their devices to make life more accessible.


The eye-gaze options have adapted access to social media platforms, emails, texts, internet search options, etc. Accessibility with the changing and growing interest in media and technology has improved!  What do you think about non-verbals using voice donors? So, they have more variety of voices to choose from. 


Any opportunity for a client to access a voice they connect with and feel represents them is always worth exploring. When there are not enough voice options on a client's device, I can often see a disconnect between the client and the device, as well as the family and the device. It reminds them that they are using a computerized voice system and can be a barrier to fully embracing the system as their voice.

Traditionally, this concept started as “Voice Banking,” where a recorded natural voice would be synthesized and converted into text-to-speech software, such as Nuance or Acapela.


Before Voice Donors, the process for recording and voice-banking took hours upon hours. But, with voice donors (internationally and domestically), the process has become shorter (all you need is a microphone, a quiet room, and a couple of hours).


There are still limitations on the naturalness of these voices and the ability to demonstrate tone and emotion, but the technology is getting closer every day with voice AI.   How can someone find a voice donor in Australia? Is there a centralised voice library in Australia? Is it easy to access? 


There is an excellent website, VocaliD, a company based out of America that allows users to donate or sponsor voices and preserve their voice (e.g., for those with neurodegenerative diseases who are losing their voice) or find a tailored bespoke voice from the Human Voicebank that matches their personality.


However, in Australia, there aren’t quite as many options just yet. The Australian company, Zyteq offers Message Banking (words and phrases using unique inflection and intonation) to preserve the speech of those with a deteriorating illness or communicative function.


Zyteq provides consultancy support to record the Message Bank, then choose software and transfer your recordings to a Speech Generating Device. Zyteq is relatively easy to access. However, I think the access to voicebanks in Australia is still expanding, and I feel it is crucial to provide more voice accessibility for Indigenous and First Nation peoples.   What does the future look like for communication devices? Where is it heading? 

I mean, it could be endless! Every Speech Pathologist working in the field of AAC that I have met has once said, “wouldn’t it be cool if there were a device that…” and I am confident that there is someone with the tech knowledge out there filling in the blanks.


At least, I hope. I love the recent science behind “Brain-computer interfaces” (BCIs), where researchers (such as Dr. Edward Chang) are mapping brainwaves to turn the intended communication of a paralysed person into text on a screen.


We will also see more access to options that provide more social connections and devices that allow for more conversational flow with predictability functions. With the rise of online gaming popularity, I think we will also see advancements in AAC accessibility in gaming.   There’s currently a delay in how fast this technology produces speech; what kinds of advancements can we expect to see in the speed of these devices? 


In terms of the hardware (the device), the dedicated devices are an entire computer squished into a tablet.


I am not the most tech-knowledgeable person in the world, but there are constant advancements in the speed of technology with mobile phones and fitting all that technology into a small device; I think we will surely start to see adaptations to speech devices along the same lines. It is always important to review whether the software is most compatible with specific devices.

Shannon’s last point is ensuring that the device and software are always up to date. She would like to see the software producers working collaboratively with the device technology companies that hope to make their software available so that the software is specifically designed for the hardware’s computer system.


You can learn more about Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) Devices by attending our next CPSN webinar on Thursday 21st September, from 1 pm to 2 pm. Register here.

If you prefer a one-on-one conversation, reach out to CPSN at www.cpsn.org.au or speak to our telehealth nurse, Amy, on (03) 9478 1001.  

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