Providing Access to Life Stories for Adults with Communication and Language Impairment

Lead Research Organisation: University of Dundee
Department Name: School of Computing


Robert is a 50 year old man who was a professional footballer into his early 20s. A stroke at 22 resulted in loss of speech and mobility. He uses a wheelchair and needs daily living assistance. Robert often tries to tell others stories about his football career as it is in telling his story that he hopes people will view him as someone other than a man in a chair . However, because of his severe speech impairment, it takes him time and effort to express even short messages; most people lose patience. Robert worries that when his older sister dies, there will be no one left who knows his life story and his social identity will be lost.Danni, a 30 year old woman with cerebral palsy, has never been able to communicate intelligibly using natural speech. As a child Danni was unable to engage in storytelling and did not develop the skills needed to share stories. Danni has participated in research projects and has demonstrated the ability to learn storytelling skills but remains unable to participate equally in interactive communication. She uses her voice output communication aid to express needs and wants, but sharing stories is frustratingly slow. She wants to explore new possibilities and make new friends, but is severely limited by her existing device. Robert and Danni are two of 365,000 people in the United Kingdom who could benefit more from augmentative and alternative communication. Although they both use voice output communication aids (VOCAs), they find great difficulty in engaging in interactive conversation. Current VOCAs are well suited to supporting the expression of needs and wants (such as I am thirsty), but more complex interactions such as conversational narrative (e.g., Did I tell you about the time I went to Spain?) and social dialogue (e.g., pub chats about football) is not well supported.This project aims to work with adults with severe speech and physical impairment, their support staff, families and friends to harness existing research technology to support them in formulating, editing and telling their own narratives. In particular, we will be using natural language generation to create stories from basic information relating to time, place, people and activity. For example, the nonspeaking person may use a photograph as a prompt to when, where, who and what are in the photo. From this information, it is possible to generate the sentences: Last week I was in London. My sister was there. We went up the London Eye. By choosing to add a positive or negative comment, the system might generate It was great. or I didn't like it. Nonspeaking adults will be involved in providing requirements for the system and will actively participate in designing the system functionality and interface. The system will allow the user to embellish narratives during interactive conversation and to maintain access to narrative over the lifespan of individuals. The end product will be a high level prototype which will be evaluated with users in different environments.

Planned Impact

Traditional augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) systems do not provide support for conversational narratives despite a growing awareness in the AAC that everyone requires access to personal story telling. Several research projects have applied natural language technology to AAC, but we still do not have a comprehensive system that allows users to create and retrieve lifelong stories. There is also no research to show the effect of longer-term narrative use on self sense of identity, both personal and as part of the wider society. Our approach to working with people with severe speech and physical impairment is unique in that they are actively involved in the research and development of assistive technology. This project has been spearheaded by our expert user group who indicated that they want a means to tell their own story. This active involvement by a hitherto neglected population is exciting as we know from mainstream research that early user involvement increases the successful adoption of technology, a major issue with AAC. We will engage and communicate with the user group at Dundee University and will be working with service users in an adult residential centre in the wild . We will engage with parents, siblings, friends, carers, care managers and therapists by working with expert users in Dundee and participants at the residential centre. We also plan to engage with volunteers who work with our participants and who will want to hear their stories. We plan to create a strand within the How was School Today online community to engage interested parties throughout the project to reduce the chasm between innovation and adoption. In addition, we will run workshops through Communication Matters at the end of our project to present our results to disabled adults, their families, speech and language therapists and other professionals interested in AAC. We have a strong track record working with industry to transfer research into commercial products. Our software will be copyrighted and we will sign non-disclosure agreements with any company with whom we have confidential discussions. Our strategy will be to sell our IPR to an AAC developer who will then create a commercial version of our software. As part of our aim to reduce the time involved in a typical route to market of assistive technology we will set up a commercialisation advisory committee. We are very keen to get our technology out into the real world as we want our ideas to be used to help language-impaired individuals communicate better. We believe the most promising commercialisation path is to make our system into a module which can be incorporated into existing commercial AAC systems. This will require the cooperation of commercial AAC vendors and we are very pleased that one market leader has agreed to support this project and is very interested in incorporating our ideas into their products. We have not signed any formal exploitation agreements with them at this stage, and we will maintain links with other interested AAC companies. Publicity features in newspapers, radio and television will be used to raise the public awareness of the abilities and needs of people who use AAC; building on our success in obtaining media publicity for our previous projects. We also aim to use the STEM program to present work done in the study to schools in the North East of Scotland. Ms Prior is a registered STEM ambassador and be responsible for the dissemination of the work to the general public through this scheme. As part of the STEM program the study would be presented at Sensation Science Centre Dundee to the general public through an interactive exhibit; the work would also be presented at Sensation's Caf Science program where researchers from the local universities are invited to present their work through a more informal and relaxed presentation to adults from Dundee and surrounding areas.


10 25 50
Description Capability Scotland 
Organisation Capability Scotland
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
Start Year 2008
Description Communication Matters 
Organisation Communication Matters
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
Start Year 2008
Description Dynavox Ltd 
Organisation Dynavox Systems
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Provided access to new software ideas.
Collaborator Contribution Provided research equipment and collaborated on new software.
Impact Ongoing sharing of new insights.