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A NEW VERSATILE DATABASE TO MANAGE AAC SYMBOL SEQUENCE CUSTOMISATIONS

Duane STAPLETON
Regency Park Rehabilitation Engineering
PO Box 2438
Regency Park, SOUTH AUSTRALIA, 5942
Day Phone: Int+ (618) 8243 8380
Fax: Int+ (618) 8243 8337
Email: duane_stapleton@eol.ieaust.org.au 
WWW: http://regencyrehab.cca.org.au/

Jenny FAULKS
Crippled Children's Association of South Australia
Technology Consultative Team (TeCT)
Box 4
5 Darley Road, Paradise South Australia 5075
Day Phone: Int+ (618) 8207 8940
Fax: Int+ (618) 8207 8941
Email: tect@camtech.net.au

Rob GARRETT
Regency Park Rehabilitation Engineering
PO Box 2438
Regency Park, SOUTH AUSTRALIA, 5942
Day Phone: Int+ (618) 8243 8263
Fax: Int+ (618) 8243 8337
Email: rob_garrett@eol.ieaust.org.au 
WWW: http://regencyrehab.cca.org.au/

ABSTRACT

This paper outlines the need, background and development of the Vocabulary Organiser software, an innovative new tool for designing, producing and storing vocabulary dictionaries and worksheets for communication devices that use symbol sequencing. INTRODUCTION

Alternative Augmentative Communication Devices which can use key sequencing for encoding vocabulary have been used extensively with clients of the Crippled Children's Association of South Australia (CCA) since 1993.

Users of such devices instruct the device to select and speak any of the pre-stored messages by entering a sequence of keys represented with specifically chosen symbols. Each message is represented by a unique sequence of symbols and or letter codes. Many hundreds of messages can be stored using a relatively small set of multimeaning symbols which are chosen specifically for their broad semantic meaning. Sequences are typically between two to four symbols in length. Generally these messages and their corresponding symbol sequences or letter codes (as in abbreviation expansion techniques) need to be formally recorded in a dictionary type of format to assist therapists, teachers, clients and care providers to teach, learn and become familiar with the layout and organisation of the vocabulary which has been programmed into the device.

During the past four years therapists in CCA have produced customised symbol sequenced vocabulary to suit the specific needs of South Australian users. There was great success in using key linking or symbol sequencing with a broad range of clients within various settings to enable clients to have access to wider vocabulary than by simply using single message systems or the use of multiple vocabulary displays as in a levels based system. As a result of the success clients were having with using symbol sequencing type systems it became necessary to investigate options for quick and easy methods for recording the vocabulary and organising individual dictionaries and support materials.

In addition to finding a suitable system to record customised vocabulary in a dictionary format there was also a very significant need for a system which enabled the generation of specific therapy and teaching materials to support clients learning to use devices with key linking or symbol sequencing. Teachers, therapists and therapy assistants were spending inordinate amounts of time creating worksheets, flashcards, word lists and custom dictionary listings. To incorporate actual symbols into the materials, these had to be manually copied, cut and pasted. These tasks were often very repetitive and extremely time consuming.

On the whole commercially available support materials are often not suitable for Australian users and considerable customisation is required to modify these into a functional form. To avoid this it was felt that there was a need for therapists to have access to a software program which allows individual vocabulary sets to be organised in a user friendly manner. This would facilitate preparation of teaching and support materials to assist clients to learn how to use devices incorporating key linking or symbol sequencing.

In 1994 the first attempt to record symbol sequenced vocabulary was made using a table format in Microsoft Word 6.0. This form however was not very user friendly and didn't allow efficient sorting, grouping and organising of the data. This highlighted the need for an integrated package that could manage the vocabulary dictionaries as well as rapidly produce therapy materials directly from the dictionary data. In an attempt to deal with these problems, the data was transferred into the Microsoft Access

1.0 database package, however lack of expertise in programming Microsoft Access resulted in the project remaining at a standstill for some time.

In 1996 funding was sought for the development of a professionally designed software solution to suit the need. Its specification included the following features: * A user friendly recording system of one or more dictionaries of vocabulary that utilise symbol sequencing.

THE SOFTWARE

The Vocabulary Organiser software was developed by Regency Park Rehabilitation Engineering. After consideration of several software tools, Microsoft Access 2.0 was chosen as the preferred software development environment. Factors involved in this choice included the speed of the Access database engine, the flexibility of the Access Basic language, and the availability of a royalty free version which reduces the cost of distributing the end product.

The core of the software is the dictionary listing of messages and their corresponding symbol sequences. Along with each message is stored one or more rationales, zero or more theme tags and zero or more user name tags.

A theme tag is any word or short phrase denoting a distinguishing characteristic of a group of messages. For example, "food", "sport" etc. Any number of themes can be created and used as required. Themes can overlap. For example the message "fish" could be tagged with both "animals" and "food" themes. Theme tags are also used to distinguish between separate message dictionaries in the situation where more than one dictionary is stored in the Vocabulary Organiser software. For example all messages in a dictionary associated with a particular device or program could be tagged with a code of that program or device.

User name tags meet the need of linking certain vocabulary to specific users. As with theme tags, any number of users can be created and assigned to specific messages. When a message is tagged with a specific user, it denotes that that message is used by that user. A dictionary specific to a given individual can be built up from the core dictionary by tagging all of that user's vocabulary with the user's name.

The graphical symbols used in the software can be imported from a wide variety of sources. Windows Meta Files (WMF files) can be imported directly. Images in many other formats can be pasted in using the Windows clipboard from any third party graphics package.

A built in spelling checker with either US or UK English dictionary helps prevent spellings errors particularly in the rationale text.

The software also includes extensive facilities for extracting and printing subsets of the dictionary in the form of reports, dictionary listings and therapy worksheets. Subsets can be based on themes, users or other criteria as discussed in the following sections "Searching and Editing the Dictionary", and "Producing Printed Output".

Searching And Editing The Dictionary:

On opening the Vocabulary Organiser software, the user is presented with the dictionary browser screen. This provides the interface through which the user can add, modify or delete messages from the dictionary. It also provides facilities for searching the dictionary for individual or groups of messages.

Prior to performing a search, all messages in the dictionary are displayed. They can be viewed either in form view where one message is displayed per screen, or in tabular view where many messages are displayed as rows in a table. Form view has the advantage of showing more information about each message including the graphical symbols of the corresponding symbol sequence, but is less convenient for browsing through the complete dictionary.

Following a search, the messages displayed are restricted to only those that match the search criteria. Complex searches are possible. For example, selecting all dictionary entries within a given theme AND that have a certain first symbol AND are used by a specific user.

Searches allow the user to perform operations such as determining if a given message exists in the dictionary and finding its symbol sequence, visually browsing messages specific to a certain user, and finding out what symbols have been used for messages within a particular theme.

Producing Printed Output:

The Vocabulary Organiser software includes the ability to print reports or worksheets directly from the vocabulary stored in the dictionary. This allows therapists to produce vocabulary listings or therapy worksheets for a certain user. The format of the printed output is highly customisable. The format of each page is based on a grid of cells arranged in rows and columns. The cells may optionally be delineated by grid lines.

When defining the format of the output, the user first decides what piece of information will appear in each column. For example, in a typical vocabulary listing, column 1 would display the message, columns 2 to 5 would display the graphical images of the symbol sequence, column 6 would display the rationale or description of that sequence. On the other hand, a therapy worksheet may require only the graphical images of the symbol sequence with a blank column for the student to fill in the corresponding message.

When producing reports and worksheets, symbol sequences may be displayed as the graphical images, as words or both.

The vocabulary that appears on the printed output is determined by one of two methods. Either by search criteria, similar to the way searching is done in the dictionary browser, or alternatively, specific vocabulary can be chosen directly from the dictionary. In either case the chosen vocabulary is displayed down the page, one message per row.

If a report is defined using the search criteria method, called the query method, the output of a report will change as the contents of the dictionary itself is modified. Every time the report is printed, the search query is run afresh. This method is particularly useful for producing dictionary listings for specific themes or users. For example a report called "Johnny's List" could be created to print all messages tagged with the user "Johnny". As Johnny's vocabulary expands his therapist would tag more and more words in the dictionary with his user name. Then on a regular basis the therapist would print the report "Johnny's List" to see an up-to-date complete list of Johnny's vocabulary.

On the other hand if a report is defined by the method of directly choosing vocabulary from the dictionary, called the manual vocabulary selection method, the output of a report will not change as the contents of the dictionary changes. This method is useful for producing worksheets that a therapist may want to recall from time to time, but that stays the same regardless of changes to the dictionary data. The process of selecting the vocabulary under this method is quite simple and so a therapist could easily produce many different worksheets, even on a daily basis, by simply editing the vocabulary on a previously defined report.

The report printing facility built into the Vocabulary Organiser software is very flexible and with a little creativity it may even be used to print such things as flash cards with only one or two symbols per page.

FUTURE PLANS

The Vocabulary Organiser software will be used by the CCA speech pathology department, including both therapists and assistants. It will also be used by educators and families for the development of customised dictionaries, and the production of therapy and educational material.

It is envisioned that clients in remote country areas will also have access to a version of the software to enable more independent ownership of therapy programs by local therapists and teachers, with some support from CCA.

The software will be trialed as a means of recording multiple graphical images for specific words and signs to enable therapists to produce custom dictionaries for clients who perhaps only use signing for communication but need a method for recording their signs. This would also allow clients without literacy skills a means to tell others which signs they are using by combining signs with picture symbols and descriptions of how the client makes that sign or communicates that particular message.

Input of this type of data will also allow therapists to produce a wide range of teaching and resource materials incorporating a range of symbol choices including signs.

CONCLUSION

Although only in the initial stages of use, the Vocabulary Organiser software has been seen to be a vast improvement over previous means of recording and organising vocabulary that utilises symbol sequencing or techniques of abbreviation expansion. To ensure that it continues as a valuable tool for its users, the software will continue to be improved in response to feedback from its users.

REFERENCES

Baker, B.R., "A Methodology for Iconic Language Design with Application to Augmentative Communication", Proceedings of the 1992 IEEE Workshop on Visual Languages, IEEE Computer Society Press, p110.

Faulks, J., "Interaction, Education and Play+ in Adelaide", Proceedings of the 1st Australian Conference on Technology for people with Disabilities, 1993, The Australian Rehabilitation and Assistive Technology Association, p21.

Stapleton, D., Faulks, J., Garrett, R., "The AusMAP database. Customising Minspeak(TM) Vocabulary for Australian use", Proceedings of the 3rd Australian Conference on Technology for people with Disabilities, 1997, The Australian Rehabilitation and Assistive Technology Association, p54.


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