Improving accessible communication technologies

Posted on November 05, 2021


On June 21, 2019, Bill C-81, An Act to ensure a barrier-free Canada (the Accessible Canada Act), received Royal Assent. The Act outlines several principles to be followed throughout its implementation, one being, “accessibility standards and regulations must be made with the goal of achieving the highest level of accessibility.”

One of the pillars of the Act is to ensure “accessible digital content and technologies.” However, standards for augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) technologies do not exist. With the goal of remedying this lack of standardization, Queen’s researchers Claire Davies (Mechanical and Materials Engineering) and Beata Batorowicz (School of Rehabilitation Therapy) are undertaking a multi-year study that aims to create optimal guidelines for the development of AAC technologies. In doing so, they hope to increase the employment potential of persons with disabilities by developing guidelines that produce more inclusive, universal, and effective AAC devices. This includes various forms of technology that assist someone with a speech or language impairment in communicating, usually in conjunction with a laptop, tablet, or specialized speech-generating devices. 

To aid in their research efforts, Professors Davies and Batorowicz have received together close to $1 million in funding from the Government of Canada’s Accessibility Standards Canada and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight program. 

Professor Davies, whose work has focused on increasing independence for persons with disabilities, including developing strategies for eye-tracking, brain-computer interfacing, and other methods of communication through computer access, believes that access is a major barrier to employment.

“People with severe speech, communication, and physical disabilities experience profound social isolation, marginalization, and participation restrictions,” says Davies. “Their exclusion from participation in gainful employment has been particularly problematic. Only 47 per cent of persons who report having a disability are employed as compared to 74 per cent who did not report a disability.”

Through their research, Professors Batorowicz and Davies are hoping to provide Accessible Standards Canada with information around “who uses what and how,” in terms of AAC technology. The researchers and their team are taking a 'co-design' approach to data collection which is meant to ensure collaboration from clients and families, and those working within Canada in the design and practice of AAC. 

Critical to the project’s success, according to the researchers, is that the voices of persons who have difficulty communicating are heard in their research.

“We have been conducting focus groups with service providers (speech language pathologists, occupational therapists, communicative disorders assistants, teachers) and are next moving to focus groups with persons who use (and those who were denied) augmentative and alternative communication systems,” says Batorowicz. “We’ll then speak to caregivers and host a final focus group of manufacturers.”

Batorowicz’s research has focused on improving outcomes for children and youth with little or no intelligible speech and physical disabilities, who require communication aids. Having worked to implement and evaluate the impact of AAC technologies in their daily lives, especially when it comes to autonomy, participation, and relationships, Batorowicz has an understanding of the important role of AAC systems plant in helping people to operate successfully in society, in both personal and professional environments. 

The insights collected from the project's participants will provide the research team and Accessible Standards Canada with invaluable insight into the day-to-day needs of people who use or can benefit from AAC technologies. The hope is that these insights will guide the development of AAC technology standards to ensure optimal effectiveness of devices. The researchers and their team also intend to use their project to advocate for increased access for persons with disabilities, especially in employment, and to aid in making suggestions for policy change around access to AAC devices, evaluation for AAC devices, and inclusivity when hiring/working with persons who use AAC devices. 

For more information on the research project or if you would like to participate in one of the focus groups, visit the website.

This story originally appeared in the Queen’s Gazette.