1998 Conference Proceedings

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Paul Hawes
The Foundation for Communication for the Disabled
+44 (0)1684 563684

Paul Blenkhorn
University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology
+44 (0)161 200 3371


As Windows based PCs are used ever more widely for symbol based communication, it is natural that the same machine will be used for mainstream learning, the acquisition of literacy and possibly text based communication.

A dynamic screen communication program offers only limited facilities for text production and teachers and helpers are often faced with the problem of how to enable children to switch between the different programs. Similarly, a stroke patient with a patchy recall of written language may wish to step frequently between the two modes of communication.

In this paper, we will look at new software, developed by the authors, that brings together the functions of dynamic screen AAC and on-screen keyboard emulation.


In this paper, we are looking at the use of AAC devices by people who are acquiring literacy, while still being dependent to some degree on the use of symbols. Such people will most certainly wish to use mainstream IT systems for word processing and access to curriculum materials and educational software.

This poses a practical problem for the users of dedicated communication aids, as they will need to switch from the AAC device to a computer and back again as appropriate.

However, for those using a computer as AAC device, there is no reason why the same machine cannot be used for both purposes. The challenge is to find a suitable suite of software that can be used in both modes, allowing the user to step seamlessly between them.

Our solution

Our solution to this problem was to produce an on-screen keyboard program that could also be used as a dynamic screen communication aid. We felt that such a program would need two essential characteristics:

Ease of set-up
Caretakers and teachers need to be able to adapt or create communication and/or keyboard pages with a minimum of training and effort.

Flexible layout
It will be necessary to create pages that look like full-screen AAC programs in the early stages, as well as a floating window used for controlling other software. Furthermore, we wanted to incorporate the best features of a flexible dynamic screen AAC program. In our view these are:

The ability to use any graphics

The program we have produced is called HandsOff. It incorporates all the features listed above. The only function of a dynamic screen communication program that has been omitted is the sentence bar, or work area. The reason for this is that we felt that this function should be performed by a suitable separate application. To accompany HandsOff, we have also produced an applet called Picture Perfect, which adds additional functionality to the sentence bar of a dynamic screen AAC program.

Three stages of software usage

Stage one - Symbol based dynamic screen communication

At this level, that needs of the user have three main characteristics:

  1. No use for literacy.
  2. Heavy reliance on ready-made phrases.
  3. Dedicated software is always required.

Software designed for this purpose is usually made to fill the entire screen so that objects or programs are not accessible, or distracting, to the user. Despite the existence of ready made communication sets, much customisation will be required, and it is important that the caretaker is given a program which is easy to use and to configure. There are no mainstream computer programs that can be used in this way.

Examples of stage 1 software

  1. Winspeak - Sensory Software
  2. Gus - The Gus Corporation
  3. Talking Screen - Words +

Stage 2 - Intermediate

At this level, the user has moved on from complete dependence on prepared materials and symbols. The typical user would have the following characteristics:

At this stage, an on-screen keyboard can be used as a way controlling other programs. Unfortunately, existing on-screen keyboards did not allow the flexibility to work properly as a dynamic symbol communication system.

An even more serious problem is that the user is likely to have a large corpus of communication boards, probably created by the customisation and extension of a ready made communications set. The replication of this would represent a huge amount of work, even using an on-screen keyboard that has the necessary features. To overcome this difficulty, we have designed HandsOff to read the communication pages created by our dynamic screen AAC program, Winspeak.

Having provided a dynamic screen system that can also drive other programs, we must start to look suitable software to go with it.

Symbol based sentence editor
This is needed to take place of the sentence bar. As no such program existed, a new one needed to be written, which we have called Picture Perfect. This is a sentence editor that can take whole words or single characters from an on-screen keyboard program. The words and symbols are displayed and spoken. Unlike the sentence area of a dynamic screen AAC program, Picture Perfect can accommodate a much longer sentence, or even a short story. It has a cursor for editing the sentence, allowing the user to learn the use of standard editing commands at an early stage.

Text editor with symbol support
The best known example of this in the UK is Writing with Symbols. This is essentially a word processor, but it can display the symbol for each word as it is typed as an aid to correction recognition. The on-screen keyboard can send either complete words or individual characters to an application of this type.

Early learning writing programs

There are several writing programs for children, which are designed to provide additional support in learning literacy. They incorporate such features as immediate spell checking and commands to read text back in speech. At this stage, predictive typing begins to be important and it is sensible to ensure that the on-screen keyboard includes this feature.

Examples of stage 2 software


Stage 3 - Text based communication

By this stage, the user is largely independent. Effective command and control are now more important to the user than ready-made materials. The typical characteristics of these users are:

A user working at this level will frequently switch between various types of application.

Word processing software
At this stage, the user will have a free choice of any word processing software that is available, rather than looking for specially written programs. The on-screen keyboard is now simply a utility to overcome the hurdle of the keyboard.

Text based AAC software
There is surprisingly little software of this type, as most developers put their effort into symbol based systems. A good AAC program will provide management of the speech output, allowing a wide range of speech systems to be used (thus avoiding a roomful of people with identical voices). It will also allow messages to be stored and retrieved in a variety of ways to permit rapid retrieval. Windbag allows messages to be selected with instant keys, via a hierarchy of topics or by searching. It also allows conversations to be saved for future use and has a utility for speaking text that was written in other applications, such as a word processor.

Environmental control
It is possible to use computer software to interact with environmental control systems. This falls outside the scope of the present paper, but it is worth bearing in mind that HandsOff is capable of driving a wide range of such systems.

Examples of stage 3 software


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