Using Assistive Technology to Aid Communications (Speech/Language)

A variety of disabilities exist which must rely on alternative means of commination besides just talking or writing. The spectrum of disabilities includes selectively mute to deaf or deaf-blind to autism to neuromotor disorders such as cerebral palsy (Shane, H.C., et. al., 2012, p. 1228). Some students also have sensory considerations, such as visual, auditory, or tactile concerns in addition to their disability that might impact communication. There are also variations in student’s implementation plans. Some students might need the use of assistive technology for a longer period of time than another student due to their specific disability and its impact on the severity of their communication skills and the pace at which they progress towards more independent communication (Cumley, G.D., Cumley, J., Maro, J., and Stanek, M., 2010, p.7)

Assistive technology used for communication is called Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices. AAC includes “all means and modes a person uses to communicate, including pointing, manual signing, finger spelling, eye gaze and facial expressions as well as Assistive Technology” (Bortfeld, H., 2010) and their aim is to “help people with communication disorders to express themselves” (NIDCD, 2011). AAC began as a way to “provide expressive communication tools for persons with little or no functional speech and/or insufficient manual dexterity to write or manipulate a keyboard” and still has the similar purpose today. (Shane, H.C., et. al., 2012, p. 1228). One issue in the past with AAC was that it was harder to transport and very high cost. Now with developments in technology, AAC is less expensive, “transportable, socially acceptable and ubiquitous” (Shane, H.C., et. al., 2012, p. 1228). One example of a no tech AAC solution is a piece of paper on which frequently used words as well as a “keyboard” are typed. The student, when communicating, points to the words or letters as they speak to help clarify what they are saying. This tool also helps the student when the word is in their mind but they are having trouble saying it, they can just point to it or spell it on the keyboard with pointing. The cost of this tool is negligible as it can be easily printed and even laminated for student use. It is also a discrete and convenient tool which can be folded into a pocket or binder when not being used and placed on the student’s desk for use when they are called on in class. Another no tech solution to communicate is sign language. Beyond the initial cost of becoming trained in sign language (about $60 for a class at the Hearing and Speech Agency in Maryland up to almost $500 at the “ASL University”) , it is a tool a student could use with specific teachers and with a one to one paraprofessional assigned to assist the student if necessary. Other solutions include a wipe board and yes/no cards (minimal cost as these could be bought at most stores or made themselves).

An example of a low tech AAC solution is the Picture Exchange Communication System

(PECS). PECS is used to target individuals who “may be unable to communicate via speech”, those who “use spoken utterances that listeners cannot understand because they are unintelligible” and those unable to initiate communication because they do not understand that they have the power to “go first” in a communicative exchange” There are six steps in PECS from physical exchange of a picture to individuals making “comments on interesting stimuli in the environment” (Overcash, A., Horton, C., and Bondy, A., 2010, p. 21). The cost of the PECS system ranges as it depends on how many pictures you want and how extensive you need your system to be. For example, if you wanted a Large Communication book it costs $36 on Amazon. However, training on how to use PECS would be an additional cost, at around $330. Another example of a low-tech AAC solution is Braille. For the deaf-blind, braille is a tool that they rely on to read signs, to create communications, and to complete classwork. A machine such as the Braille Writing Machine can be used to write in Braille and typically costs about $275 on eBay.

Examples of medium tech AAC solutions are “portable speech generating devices (SGDs) that produce synthetic and/or digitized speech” both dynamic display and static display. Examples of software to be used with these devices are Boardmaker with Speaking Dynamically Pro as well as Viking. This software has “considerable expansion capability, can be text and/or symbol-based, and often can incorporate multimedia content” however, it is also is “expensive, cumbersome, and time-consuming” as well as stigmatizing to the user. A typical SGD device cost $400 to $8000 and higher (Enable Mart, 2013). Additionally, “Low-cost, widely available peripheral devices (e.g., cameras, camcorders, DVD players)” can be used as AAC devices to aid in communication (Shane, H.C., et. al., 2012, p. 1229). Prices for such devices range from $100 to anywhere under $1,000 for an affordable quality piece of equipment. A more positive and socially acceptable tool is the use of. apps that can be used on devices, such as tablets and phones. Apps available vary from more basic to more complex and prices range depending on their complexity. For example, iConverse has 6 icons for a person’s basic need for $9.99 while Proloquo2Go has “text-to-speech voices, up-to-date symbols, powerful automatic conjugations, [and] a default vocabulary of over 7000 items” for $149.99 (Bortfeld, H., 2010). Other apps for student use that would aid in communication and organization are MyTalk, Steps, First-Then, MyChoiceBoard, and PicCalendar. If a student was to rely on the device for whole day use, it would a pricey purchase for one student. Typical app-friendly tablets and phones range o\in price from $300 to $1000 (Tech Radar, 2013). However if a tablet was shared among a few students and only used for specific times each day the price would be more justifiable.

Lately there has been research completed which potentially would lead to some very high tech solutions to aid people “with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease) or brainstem stroke” who “are not able to express words, even though they are able to think and reason normally” (NIDCD, 2011). Called Brain-Computer Interface Research, researchers are “studying how neural signals in a person’s brain can be translated by a computer to help someone communicate.” Researchers are also “attempting to develop a prosthetic device that will be able to translate a person’s thoughts into synthesized words and sentence” as well as “developing a wireless device that monitors brain activity that is triggered by visual stimulation” (NIDCD, 2011).

Communication dficulties affect a wide range of disabilities. In turn, many variations of Assistive Technology and AAC can be used to ensure a student is learning and living to their full potential. Varying in price and type, the types of AAC available are such a wider variety that finding a match for each student is almost guaranteed.


Annotated Resources:

AbleData. (2013). AbleData: Assistive Technology Products, News, Resources. Retrived from

Provides “objective information about assistive technology products and rehabilitation equipment” available from domestic and international sources. The site also list the companies that sell AAC equipment as well as a page on Research in AAC.

Augmentative Communication Inc. (ACI). (2013). Home page.

This site publishes resources, including newsletters and presentations, on important developments in Augmentative and Alternative Communication.

Austism.Com. (2013). Signed Speech or Simultaneous Communication.

This site shared information on using sign language with children with autism as a means of communication.

Bella Online. (2013).

Bella Online is a site aimed toward women. This link provides information on what you need to implement PECS through articles on the subject and alternate communication options. Information on PECS and its implementation

Munroe Barkley AAC Center. (2013). AAC – Alternativea nd Augmentive Communcation. Retrieved from

Run by the University of Nebraska Lincoln, its goal is to provide “access to a wide range of information and resources related the AAC effort”. This site includes an AAC Vendors list ( as well as AAC Links (

National Center for Learning Disabilities . 2013. Home page.

This site provides general information on learning disabilities as well as the effect communications have on the student’s ability to learn.

NIDCD. (2013). Directory. Retrieved from

This site provides a list of organizations aimed towards providing services to those who, have difficulties communicating.

The Hanen Center. (2013). Hanen Home. Retrieved from

Hanen Center’s mission is to help young people build their communication skills, focusing mainly on Autism Spectrum Disorder and Asperger Syndrome. Based in Canada, it was founded over 35 years ago and provides programs for parents, training for speech language pathologists, and developing user-friendly materials for parents and care-givers.

Trainland Tripod. (2013). Communication.

This site provides information about PECS, nonverbal communication, AAC intervention, communication boards, schedules and symbols and other links.

United States Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication.(2013). The Voice of AAC.

Dedicated to providing information and support on the issues, technology, tools and advancements within the world of AAC (including up to date tweets about AAC).


Bortfeld, H. (2010). Helping Nonverbal Kids to Communicate. Retrieved from

Cumley, G.D., Cumley, J., Maro, J., and Stanek, M.(2009). Chapter 3 – Assistive Technology for Communication. In Assessing Students’ Needs for Assistive Technology) (pp.1-52). Wisconsin Assistive Technology Initiative.

Enable Mart. (2013). Dynamic Communicators. Retrieved from -communicators.

NIDCD. (2011). Assistive Devices for People with Hearing, Voice, Speech, or Language Disorders. Retrieved from

Overcash, A., Horton, C., and Bondy, A. (2010). The Picture Exchange Communication System™: Helping Individuals Gain Functional Communication. Autism Advocate. Thrid Edition: 21-24.

Shane, H.C., Laubscher, E.H., Schlosser, R.W., Flynn, S., Sorce, J.F., Abramson, J. (2012). Applying Technology to Visually Support Language. Jounral of Autism and other Developmental Disorders. 42 (6), 1228–1235.

Tech Radar. (2013). Best Tablet 2013. Retrieved from

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