Low Tech as a back up for High Tech AAC
By Desirae Pillay
In the face of overwhelming strides in high-technology for communication for people with disabilities, we can easily forget or ignore the benefits of low tech or no tech communication. As an AT Advisor and a parent of someone who uses AAC, I am always aware of the importance of a low-tech system even when a person has one or more high tech communication systems.
Why is this? High Tech systems are firstly often powered by electricity or batteries, and sometimes we don’t have access to electricity or the batteries in our devices run out. In the time that a person who uses AAC waits for a power supply or for their batteries to be replaced, it is unthinkable that they should be without a communication system.
Secondly, high tech devices cannot be taken into every place that the person who needs it must be in. It is not always practical to have a high-tech device in the bathroom or during a physiotherapy session or while being examined by a doctor. Sometimes the mounting options limit the use of the device when travelling. Not everyone can afford wheelchair mounting and a separate mounting to hold their device when they are in bed. Some people only have one mounting option and will therefore be limited in using their high-tech system when not in their optimum position for communicating. It is again unthinkable that they are not able to communicate when away from their mounting.
Thirdly, we all use more than one form of communication. Although many people use computers these days to for written communication, if our computers are not available to us, many of us can fall back on good old-fashioned writing. We have a backup! If we have a backup then how much more important is it for people who depend on communication aids to have a backup for their high-tech systems.
There are some easy to use low tech backup options for people who have a physical disability and are unable to use their hands to point. They may find it easier to use their eyes to “point”. Eye muscles movement is a low/no impact on the other muscle groups and rarely triggers involuntary movement. Teaching a person to choose between two objects for choice making can be very meaningful as opposed to deciding for them. By presenting two option within their visual field and teaching that the one they look at the longest will be their choice is a form of low tech communication.
Partner Assisted Scanning is another effective no tech communication system when the person who uses AAC can spell. This is dependent on a communication partner calling out the letters of an alphabet in a specific arrangement. This is dependent on a communication partner calling out the letters of an alphabet in a specific arrangement.
This video of Harvey Frank and Silva is very helpful to give an idea of how to use this method:
Another effective tool to aid communication when a person uses gestures, manual hand signs, body movement and sounds; is to have a gesture dictionary. While the gesture dictionary in itself is not an actual communication system, it is a very good way of ensuring that the person who uses unaided AAC is “heard”. Too often we miss or do not understand a person when they rely on their bodies to aid their communication and we can misinterpret their communication. A gesture dictionary is a collection of either photographs or notes describing the persons unaided gestures, signs, body movements and sounds and it lists the meaning of each. For a person who uses a sign we are not familiar with or makes a gesture we struggle to interpret, referring to their own gesture dictionary ensures they are understood and there needs are met when their familiar communication partners and they high tech AAC system may not be available.
This is image is from the wonderful PrAACtical blog, and taken from a free downloadable powerpoint template for making your own Gesture Dictionary.
While we may find these strategies slower than using a high-tech solution, it is important to remember that often when a person needs any of these solutions, then they likely have NO other way of communicating. If our goal is for them to participate in their lives as independently as possible, then we must provide all the strategies for communication all of the time. A complete solution for an individual includes both low-tech and high-tech AAC communication systems.
This can be taken further for those people who can spell and want to say what’s on their mind rather than be limited to the choices presented to them. Using an etran frame with alphabets and a method of encoding, a person can convey any message they want. Encoding uses colours to make it possible to add more options to the frame.
If the user would like to spell the letter ‘B’ they look at the blue circle so that the communication partner knows to expect a blue letter next.
Then the user looks at the corner containing the letter ‘B’ to confirm which blue letter they have chosen. It is a good idea to practice looking back at the communication partner once you’ve chosen a letter.