What is assistive technology?

Assistive technology is any kind of technology and/or tool that can be used to enhance the functional independence of a person with a disability. Often, for people with disabilities, accomplishing daily tasks such as communicating with others, going to school or work, or participating in activities can be a challenge. Assistive Technology (AT) devices are tools to help overcome those challenges and enable people living with disabilities to enhance and have access to a quality of life, that may otherwise not be known, and lead more independent lives.

The mission of this blog is to serve as a voice of a constant researcher in the field of educational and assistive technologies so that the best products, strategies and services may be located easily, in hopes that they will then be delivered, taught and used to better the lives of people with disabilities.


Communication Books

I love a good old fashion light tech communication book. It's a great introduction to AAC, and can be extremely versatile, not to mention inexpensive. There are so many options available but if you can't find what you need but have an icon software program, such as Boardmaker or Symbol Stix, you can just make your own! What is wonderful about communication books is that it is easy to design one, two or 10 for each individual's needs. 

Are you thinking you don't need to know about communication books because your students use high tech devices, think again! Students need a back-up system. Sometimes they may prefer a light tech system during recess or quieter times in the classroom or while having a conversation with one person. Even our eye gaze students use light tech at different times of the day using partner assisted scanning. Having the peers taught how to use it can bring about many intimate moments. A good communication book can be very empowering.

Personalizing: When you are personalizing a book, content is the most important issue but remember to make them attractive and colorful, and of course- easy to manipulate for that particular student so they are able to access it comfortably. If the student has the ability to draw and/or write, you might consider having them help in designing a cover. If they do not, maybe you could have them design it on the computer or provide input as you develop the cover. Making it a joint project will help to develop more ownership. Remember to have a section at the very front of the book which tells unfamiliar communication partners how to use the book with the communicator. This can be part of the cover. (Example: I use this book to help me communicate. Please place it on my tray by my left hand as this is how I flip through the book the easiest. I will point to what I want to say. Please say it aloud for me so I can let you know if you misunderstood me.")

Text Based or Picture Based: Is the user a reader? If so, the text may be the most important component. Does that mean you get rid of the symbols, not necessarily, as it might help in finding the words needed more quickly but then again, maybe that student is going to rely on color coding (see Goossens', Crain, Elder Color- Coding Communication Displays) more than the symbols. If your student is not a reader, ALWAYS include the text as this helps to develop literacy.

Know the Purpose: Before you start, ask yourself what the purpose of the book is. Is it to help a teacher to know what the student knows? Is it for making requests during an art activity? Is it for communicating with peers? Is it to participate in a specific class? Is it a back-up for a communication device? Knowing what you want to accomplish with the book is so important to making one that really works.

Content: Nouns are great to have but if we have a book of nouns such as body parts, food and school products, it might work well for requesting, labeling, and list making but for having a conversation or for language learning it will be very limiting. If you are trying to use the book to teach real language skills, then the student has to have a rich base of core words. Using anything less may allow our student to function but will not allow them to grow their language skills. (I love a book like the one in the picture which has a base page of core words with categories of fringe.)

Situation-specific communication pages should give the student quick access to much more than just the nouns used in any given situation. When selecting the messages for situation-specific communication, think interactive communication. Do the messages on the board allow the student to
  • initiate and terminate a topic
  • direct the attention of the listener
  • ask and answer questions
  • agree or comply
  • reject or refuse
  • comment on the activity
  • express feelings and opinions
  • joke around
The messages should allow the student to participate as fully as possible in every given situation. 

Next, you might consider having a page based on events that transpire throughout the day, such as dressing, eating, greetings, playing, learning stations/classes, music, art, conversations with friends, sharing week-end experiences, holiday conversations, etc.

Think about: pronouns, verbs, descriptors, prepositions, interrogatives,and other words that are as appropriate in the classroom as they are on the playground, bus, bathroom, therapy, bedroom, kitchen, backyard, store, restaurant, doctor’s office, waiting room, gym, park, library, clinic, Grandma’s house, porch, car, etc. as Carole Zangari said in "I made a Communication Board. Now What?

If you are not sure, follow your student around for a day (or ask an educational assistant) and jot down notes, what are the other kids saying? What would you want to say when they say...?  Then map it out. I like to do a concept map before developing my book. Be sure to talk to the people in the student's life and gather ideas about what they feel he/she needs or might want to be able to communicate. Summarizing - things to consider when planning:
  1. What is the purpose of the book? Maybe you will want to have a couple of different books: one for academics, one for home, one for recess... or maybe you want them all to be in one book with multiple categories and/or have more general messages.
  2. A book of nouns focuses on requesting and as we know, requesting is not all there is. We tend to think about needs and wants but there is more to life.  Other things to consider: 
    • Greetings
    • Introducing topics ("What about those Giants!?!")
    • Talking about a topic ("Did you see the game?" "My favorite player was...")
    • Asking partner-focused questions ("Who is your favorite player?" I love Hunter. He can really hit that ball!)
    • and: Re-directing, clarifying, affirming, disagreeing, terminating the interaction ("Gotta go!"), etc.
  3. Don't forget core vocabulary! Core vocabulary allows for a more natural flow of language. Core words are: common, high-frequency, re-usable, across language functions, descriptive, used across contexts and should be always available. Having a fold out on the side with core words often works well.
  4. Be sure to have a way for the student to communicate, "What I want to say is not here." I often put one square in the lower right corner of each page with this message.
  5. Have the ability for the book to grow. Don't start with too much, it might get overwhelming but once they have learned what they have, add to it! Don't want to limit them.We want our student's vocabulary to continue to grow, not to be stagnant.

Teaching: Don't just hand it to a student and expect them to know how to use it. It must be taught!! Using aided language is key to the learning process. We must model, model, model, redirect, expect and support. Isn't this how all children learn to communicate? We start with, "thank you" and the child says nothing. We keep saying, "thank you" when it is appropriate. We add terms such as, "Mary gave you a cupcake. We say, thank you." Then we move to, "thank you" when we expect them to say it. Pretty soon they make an attempt, you hear it and although it wasn't perfect you say, "that's right! Good job for telling Joe thank you because that was really nice of Joe, wasn't it?" We teach our children how and when and what to say. We need to do the same when teaching student's to use any form of communication, even a simple communication book.

Our county has started using the PODD communication books in many of our classrooms. PODD (or Pragmatic Organization Dynamic Display) communication books were developed in Australia by Gayle Porter, originally for children with cerebral palsy. By educating yourself on the process used in PODD and the book layouts, you will learn more about just good practice with using communication books with students. What they promote is good for AAC in general. Their system is all about using aided language to communicate WITH students who have complex communication needs.

Create Opportunities to Use it: It is not a time put aside for learning how to use it but instead it is realizing that all day every day provides us with opportunities to communicate, demonstrate and talk about... The communication books should be used at every possible opportunity. If the book is not with the student, you have lost the opportunity to use it. It should become a part of who they are. We don't place a student's voice on the table, on a shelf, in a backpack and leave it there.In order for any communication system to work, must become a part of who they are and expected to be available throughout their day.

Remember, if they have a dynamic display (AAC device/electronic system) it doesn't mean paper communication books are not needed.  They can be used in addition or maybe in place of and always as a back up.

The communication book should only be one part of their communication system not the whole communication system. Use a multi-modal approach!!!