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This is part 2 of a three part series. Next week will help you select the proper device for AAC.
Augmentative/Alternative Communication (AAC) for Aphasia
Communicating When, Where and What You Want
The high and low tech of augmentative and alternative communication for aphasia
BY JON CASWELL
Benefits and Challenges
A benefit of high-tech AAC is capacity. A physical notebook can only hold so many pictures, but a smartphone or tablet can hold thousands.
“There are several mobile applications that combine the use of photographs, writing, drawing and text to allow the individual with aphasia to use those to support their communication,” McKelvey said. “It can be programmed with a greeting for your daily coffee order. Sometimes, we use what we call a floor holder that introduces the individual using AAC and says, ‘I’m using this communication device to help because it’s difficult for me to get my words out, but I can understand what you’re saying.’ It really depends on the individual needs of the person.”
Some patients prefer the high-tech, and both experts surmised that this reflects the person’s comfort with technology before the stroke. “Our folks who are in their 80s, 90s and sometimes 70s just prefer to use low-tech strategies,” McKelvey said. “But this next generation may be different. They are used to using technology all the time and may want to use … this type of technology for communication as they’re so familiar with it.”
A little over a decade ago, someone carrying around a device all the time might have seemed odd. “With the proliferation of tablets, there is less stigma involved in somebody using or carrying around a tablet that they use for various purposes because lots of people do it,” Gutmann said. “Even dedicated devices these days maybe have sort of a tablet-looking- type device or a laptop type of device, so they may not be as different looking as they may have been in the past.”
High-tech allows for more complexity in communication. “In most high-tech systems, you can prepare and save messages and have them ready to go,” Gutmann said. “You could also communicate across space with something that has a voice output, so you could talk on the phone, whereas for the most part, low-tech options are very limited in that respect.”
Complexity can be a challenge with high-tech AAC — ease of navigation, ease of organization and customization are important. If survivors can’t make it their own, it will never be part of them. “It has to be organized and personalized for the individual who has aphasia. It really has to make sense for the user,” McKelvey said. “It can be a challenge to figure out how it is going to be most facilitative. A lot of trials and feedback about ease of use are necessary. When we design something for a patient, they have to take it out and use it. Then we come back together and talk about what worked and what didn’t. How can we make this better?”
Gutmann emphasized that programming is time intensive. “It can be fabulously successful, but it can also fall flat on its face if you don’t have buy-in from the person with aphasia and their most important conversation partners,” she said. “Also, there are so many considerations for systems. You have to consider if the person can navigate it. Can they use a smartphone? People who were tech users before they had aphasia may be more inclined to embrace this as part of their AAC. People who weren’t users of tech before they had aphasia may find themselves less inclined to embrace this as part of their intervention.”
High-tech AAC requires a battery or an electrical outlet. And, as amazing as it is, technology always has the potential not to work. “I never have an individual communicate using just one method because I don’t communicate using just one method, so I don’t expect my patients to,” McKelvey said. “There has to be a low-tech way for them to communicate when their high technology isn’t available to them for whatever reason — it doesn’t get plugged in, it doesn’t work that day, they left it in the car, whatever.”
If something does go wrong with a mobile tablet, what then? “Who’s going to be this person’s tech support?” Gutmann asked. “Is it going to be their spouse, their child, their best friend, their grandchild? A dedicated speech-generating device is going to come with tech support from the manufacturer. But when you buy a commercially available tablet and an app, who’s responsible for that? If something goes wrong, do you take it back to the place where you got the tablet? Maybe it’s not a tablet issue; maybe it’s a problem in the app. Maybe it needs updating. Maybe there’s a problem with the device. It’s harder to disentangle those things.”
Neither low-tech nor high-tech AAC is better than the other. But it’s not hard to imagine that using tech that actually speaks for you can make a different impression. “You might be perceived as smarter, more able, more capable,” Gutmann said. But not all people will relate to an artificial voice coming from a device. And there are situations that may require low-tech AAC. “What happens when the power goes out, or you need to communicate in the shower or bath? If you need help with those type of tasks, you can’t be taking a tablet or a dedicated device into the bath or the shower.”
Sometimes it boils down to simplicity. “Honestly, a lot of my patients just prefer the low-tech because they can write or draw or use the word list, and it’s just easier for them to communicate using those methods,” McKelvey said. “It really depends on how efficiently they can locate what they want to say when they need to say it. Personalizing the organization and vocabulary within the AAC system can lead to successful communication.”
“Cost can be a barrier for some individuals — if you’re looking at a particularly sophisticated speech-generating device, up to $7,000,” said McKelvey. “Speech-generating devices are considered essential durable medical equipment by Medicare and Medicaid, but there has to be an evaluation from a speech therapist.” Getting Medicare or Medicaid to cover the cost requires paperwork and the process for approval can take some time. McKelvey tells us that there are programs and organizations that may offer equipment on loan. This gives individuals with aphasia a chance to try out the technology first. “If we’re talking about an app on a phone, those can be anywhere from $5 to $250 plus the cost of the device,” she said.