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Hi-Tech Communication

See our Assistive Technology Home Page for a full list of information about Assistive Communication and AAC devices, and links to information and strategies relating to communication.
Hi-tech communication generally refers to electronic devices, which are either controlled by direct access, eye scanning, or scanning and switching. Switching can be achieved in a number of ways depending on the physical ability of the individual. Advances in computer technology mean new hi-tech devices are becoming smaller and cleverer and have become the new way for many individuals to communicate.
There are a number of different types of devices, and finding the right match will depend on the nature of the communication disorder, and the physical and cognitive abilities of the individual. Some machines require the user to type their message, some have a few pre-loaded spoken messages, and other devices contain software packages that offer thousands of words and phrases, visual displays, internet access and Mp3 players etc. Many machines now include environmental controls, so as well as being able to communicate, an individual can turn on the lights or change the volume on their TV etc. These machines can be accessed directly and many allow for switch access. For individuals with severe physical difficulties these devices provide more independence.


Switches for AAC

There are a number of different designs of switches to allow different means of access. Switches can be placed in all manner of positions, and can be activated in different ways. Switches can be pressed, knocked, and blown to activate, and some can now be activated by small movements such as eye blink.

An example of scanning and switching:
John has cerebral palsy, he is non-verbal and has severe motor difficulties, but he has normal intelligence and can read and write. He has been set-up with laptop which has scanning and word prediction software and is connected to a switch by his knee because he is unable to type. John focuses on a keyboard on his computer screen which scans through each line of letter keys. John wants to write “hello”, so he waits for the software to scan the line of letters containing “H” on his keyboard and then he hits the switch with his knee. The software then starts to scan along this line and when it reaches “H”, John hits the switch again and the letter “H” appears in his dialogue box. John also has predictive text so a list of common words beginning with “H” then appears on his screen enabling him to access whole words without having to type each letter individually. The word “hello” is one of the words displayed so John accesses this word via the scanning and switching and his machine speaks the word “hello”.

Although this seems like a long complicated process (and it can be with some devices), modern software and switches are enabling users to access words and phrases much quicker and many regular users become quicker at writing messages as they become more familiar with the device.


Mice – Some individuals with physical difficulties have difficulty using a mouse. However, there are now adapted mice, rollerball mice and joystick mice which give users access to a computer, communication machines and software. There are also mice that are controlled with the lips and the mouse clicks are entered by blowing or sucking on a small tube. This allows individuals with physical difficulties to access their computers.


Communication Devices

There are a number of communication machines available with speech output. These range from very simple options with a few spoken messages, to computer type machines which offer thousands of words and phrases, visuals, internet access, environmental control and MP3 players. These machines can be accessed directly and some allow for switch access.


Simple devices – these devices have a limited amount of communication options. The device may have one, or several sheets of coloured icons, that fit onto the front of the machine. These sheets may be able to be changed or adapted to fit the users needs. The number of icons could range from 2 upwards. These devices are limited by the amount of communication options they offer, but they might be ideal for a young child or adult with learning disabilities to communicate many basic needs or topics of conversation. These machines are generally accessed directly by pushing the selected icon and producing a recorder message.
Advanced devices – these devices vary in complexity, but they are likely to have an LCD screen, allow for switching and scanning access, have a many options for communication, and allow for new options to be easily added. Some devices will require you to type a written message, others to access a series of icons to produce words and sentences. They will all produce voice output. Some of these devices will also have other features such as playing music, accessing the internet, emailing and environmental control. More recently some users have been moving to devices such as ipads and tablets because they are portable and have communication apps that produce spoken output.


Software and apps for AAC

Although software is not a device as such, we have included it because some software can be added to computers to enhance communication and accessibility. Some software will produce spoken output, allow for word prediction when typing, or make it easier for an individual to navigate around his laptop. Other software such as voice activated typing, can be used by individuals with physical difficulties. Ipads and tablets now provide access to a number of communication apps, some of which have speech output. Most standard computers now have Accessibility Options which provide a number of features to facilitate those with physical and/or sensory impairments.

Eye gaze for AAC

The latest technology for facilitating access to technology is eye scanning. This works by having a small camera at the top of a computer screen tracking the movement of your eye. The user’s eye is calibrated with the screen and then his eye movement corresponds with the movement of the cursor. The user moves the cursor around the screen by the movement of his eye and when he holds the cursor still on an item this is equivalent to a mouse click. Using this system, individuals with physical limitations are able to access a computer, type messages and activate speech output software. This technology is not ideal for everyone, and users need good head control and attention skills. However, for some individuals with severe physical limitations, it works extremely well and allows them to communicate, write and control their environment.


For more information about communication difficulties, and ideas and strategies to help communication, see our Resources, or for specific fact-sheets about assistive technology devices and information and strategies for improving communication go to the Downloads Section.


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