Supporting conversations by using an iPad

Meeting a need

Conversation is the lifeblood of the social life of many if not most people. Yet many people with learning disabilities and others, particularly those who have little or no spoken language, have very few conversations. They miss out on this cornerstone of sociability .. and it’s not through choice. Given the chance, many of those who typically have few conversations leap at the chance to converse. Sometimes we convince ourselves that we’re communicating well with someone but all they’re experiencing is a kind of repetitive small talk that rarely gets very far. People who use signs have an advantage .. but only if the people they want to converse with also use signs (and that’s a very small minority). People can use symbol and picture systems and these can be liberating. But to build up utterances into conversations the person using the system has to understand the rules for the system they’re using and have some grasp of how to build sentences. They also have to have a very co-operative respondent in their conversation who can appreciate and stay with the laborious process these systems represent for some.

We need something that is not reliant on the person acquiring and sticking with a complex alternative communication system but which can still support conversations with others, no matter how unskilled those others are. And we need it freely available, unencumbered by cost or license restrictions.

Our concept is to develop for individuals a ‘phrase book’ that would support conversations with anyone they come across .. sharing information, expressing feelings, logging experiences etc. This could also be used in more formal settings like reviews and best interest meetings to support a person to articulate their views. We’re working on a way to use Apple’s iPad (and one of Apple’s programmes called iBooks Author) that enables people to share a rich picture of their lives with others and to engage in two-way conversation.

We recognise that there’s probably no ‘standard product’ that will fit all needs. Someone recovering their language after a stroke will have very different needs to someone with profound learning disabilities. But the same principles and methods can apply as we seek to tailor-make ‘phrase books’ for people.

We’re just at the stage of putting together ‘phrase books’ for a few individuals. Based on the learning from this we will be able to share more information to enable colleagues and families to consider whether this is something they would want to try.

Our observation locally is that very small numbers of adults are using apps,  symbol/picture systems, or communication diaries on a day-to-day basis. There seems to be a real block on extending technologies of all sorts to adults with communication difficulties. We’re hoping that our project will enthuse more people, families and workers to see the possibilities in the use of the iPad and how they can become part of the conversational world of us all.

So is this another AAC app?

For the uninitiated, AAC stands for Augmentative and Alternative Communication. There are lots of good AAC apps for the iPad. Proloquo2Go and Gridplayer are two examples and there are many others. (See the SpeechBubble site). But what we’re doing here is a bit different.

The focus of the AAC apps, in the main, is on the individual’s ability to ‘speak’ through the use of an iPad or other equipment. The idea behind what we’re calling ‘phrase books’ is different because they:

  • focus on social interactions/conversations between any two or more people regardless of previous skills or knowledge
  • expect facilitation from the conversation participant who is more fluent
  • are based on sharing rich chunks of information, rather than building segments of information into something meaningful
  • don’t depend on sentence contruction .. it is more about constructing conversations
  • allow for histories/personal experiences to be stored and explored
  • are built to support conversations that will include the person’s usual communications in terms of sounds, facial expressions, body language, gestures, signs etc

Phrase books don’t require any skill from the person who is being supported other than to be able to attend verbally or visually to the ‘book’ .. and they allow for any amount, or no, physical interaction with the iPad. It’s not about acquiring and using a skill, but about being able to engage in a conversation. It’s for us to adapt the phrase book to facilitate that engagement.

For more information use the Contact page

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