1999 Conference Proceedings

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Using the Internet to Empower Augmented Communicators

Kevin J Cohen MA CCC-SLP
Institute on Disabilities/UAP Temple University
Philadelphia, PA 19122


Empowerment occurs for people with disabilities when he or she recognizes his or her own value a human being and begins to exercises choice and control in life. The purpose of this presentation is to present research about the empowerment that occurs when augmented communicators use the Internet, and to demonstrate 3 distinct projects which have capitalized on using the Internet to facilitate the empowerment of augmented communicators. This session will present data collected from a year long mentoring project involving eight individuals who use AAC and communicated with each other via e-mail. Social validation data addressing the effectiveness of the program as well as suggestions from the participants to improve future mentoring projects will be presented. The presentation will also discuss ACOLUG, the Augmented Communicators On-Line User's group. Over 300 people participate in ACOLUG, a free electronic forum for augmented communicators to communicate with each other and professionals. The presentation will also discuss how the ACES (Augmentative Communication and Empowerment Supports) training program uses the Internet to empower it participants.

The Mentor Program

One of the most significant ways that the Internet can be used to empower augmented communicators is by allowing them to communicate with other augmented communicators. Specifically, allowing them to develop mentor relationships with other augmented communicators. Mentors form one of the most developmentally important relationships a person can have in early adulthood (Levenson, 1978). They serve as teachers, sponsors, and guides. The demographics of the population who uses AAC make it unlikely that a young person who uses AAC will have the opportunity to communicate regularly with experienced augmented communicators who can share their knowledge and experiences. There are 3 major problems with attempting to develop a mentor program for Augmented communicators:

  1. The limited number of augmentative communicators in any given area makes frequent interaction problematic,
  2. the limited number of augmented communicators makes it difficult to match a potential protege with a mentor who shares his/her personal and vocational interests, type of disability and communication disorder, and augmentative communication system, and
  3. augmentative communicators who have the most to offer as mentors, may not have the time to participate (Cohen and Light, in press). The Internet has the potential to address all three of these problems for augmented communicators (Williams, 1995).

To address the potential of e-mail to overcome the problems of a mentor program for augmented communicators, eight volunteers (four proteges and four mentors) participated a study (Cohen & Light, in press). Participants were all individuals with cerebral palsy, who relied on voice output communication aids as their primary means of communication. The mentors were all individuals who had distinguished themselves as role models (e.g. completing secondary education, advocating for disability rights, obtaining community-based employment). Proteges were paired with mentors based on their individual interests and needs. Once a dyad was matched, the mentor and protege were introduced via e-mail, and instructed to send at least one message per week to each other. The dyads started by exchanging biographical information, as well as discussing problems, future plans, vocational and educational goals.

The results revealed that discussion that focused on social interaction (e.g. greetings, discussion about hobbies, weekend plans) was the most frequently occurring topic in 3 of the 4 dyads, and was the second most frequently occurring topic in the fourth dyad (range of 24% - 51% of total conversation). The following topics all received significant attention in discussions between dyads: technical assistance (range of 9% - 31% of total conversation), school or work issues (range of 3% - 32% of total conversation), personal care attendants (range of 2% - 17% of total conversation), and cerebral palsy (range of 0% - 17% of total conversation).

All of the participants reported satisfaction with the program, and stated that they valued the opportunity to exchange communication with other AAC users, and that the program was helpful in meeting their personal goals. All participants reported that additional methods of communication (e.g. face-to face meeting, real time computer chatting, video tape exchange, video conferencing, phone calls) would be useful in future mentoring programs. All of the participants stated that the use of e-mail allowed them to have access frequent and convenient communication with their partner. Many of them suggested that the program would have been improved by integrating more Internet technology (e.g. On-Line chatting, video conferencing, and web pages)

Mentoring empowers augmented communicators by allowing the protege to benefit from the unique perspective and experiences of an augmentative communicator who has successfully navigated many of the challenges that are inherent in times of transition. The use of e-mail proved to be a means to overcome the problem of geographic distance between appropriate mentors and proteges and facilitated more frequent access to the advice and insights of mentors.


ACOLUG is the Augmented Communicators On-Line User's Group. ACOLUG is an Internet Listserv. A Listserv is a computerized mailing list that which allows for a large groups of people to communicate with each other though the Internet. ACOLUG empowers AAC users by allowing them to join and participate in a community. There are over 350 members of ACOLUG from all 50 States and from over 20 countries. ACOLUG's membership is primarily augmented communicators but it also has members who are professionals, teachers, students, engineers, and assistive technology manufacturers.

ACOLUG is a community of people interested in augmented communication and disability issues. It's members are empowered by overcoming the geographic, financial, and logistical barriers that prevent them from meeting face-to face to share wisdom, advice, news, and camaraderie. Frequently news about important advocacy issues is distributed on ACOLUG, as well as technical advise, training and job opportunities, personal news and occasional jokes. ACOLUG also sponsors On-Line forum in Internet Relay Chat Rooms and frequently host special guests to share their expertise and answer questions.

"I think ACOLUG has become a family where people come for help, advice, and sometimes a kick in the pants. We celebrate our achievements and give comfort for our hard times like any other family would. I am very lucky to be part of this family" David Chapel, ACOLUG Member.

Subscribing to ACOLUG is free and simple. All you need is a computer and an e-mail address. Just follow these simple instructions.

  1. Send an email to listserv@listsev.temple.edu
  2. Leave the subject blank
  3. In the message type Subscribe ACOLUG Your Name Ex. Subscribe ACOLUG John Doe
  4. Send the message. You will get a short confirmation notice a few minutes afterwards.
  5. Use the reply function to the confirmation notice and simply type OK.
  6. you are now subscribed, send us an introduction.


ACES (Augmented Communication and Empowerment Supports) is a year long training program for augmented communicators. It is designed to increase the communication effectiveness and empowerment skills of adults with significant communication disabilities. the participants all receive intensive communication, empowerment and computer training. The hub of ACES is an intensive 2 week course were participants are immersed in learning about their particular communication system as well as their rights as a person with a disability. The empowerment courses are similar to Partners in Policy Making (Zirpoli, Hancox & Wieck, 1989), a program designed to teach informational and technical competence as well as psychological confidence.

The empowerment and communication curriculum at ACES is supported by daily Internet activities. Each day as participants learn about their rights as a person with disabilities, they learn how to use the Internet to locate local and national resources, agencies, and advocacy groups that will help them exercise their rights. As participants learn about the different vocational opportunities available to them, they use the Internet to communicate with successful augmented communicators who are working in the community. They also learn about different vocational opportunities that are provided by using the Internet. Participants learn how to post their resumes on the Internet or advertise their enterprise. Participants are also taught how to use their computer with the least amount of specialized equipment, and how to access the Internet using the most generic software. This empowers them to be able to use any computer with any Internet software. The participants also use the Internet to remain in close contact with each other and the instructors after ACES.


Cohen & Light (1997). Use of electronic communications to develop a mentoring program for individuals who use augmentative and alternative communication. In press.

Levenson, D. J. (1978) . The seasons of a man's life. New York: Knopf.

Williams, M. (1995) . The Internet and AAC. Alternatively Speaking, 2, (3), 1-6.

Zirpoli, T., , Hancox, D. & Wieck, C. (1989) Partners in Policymaking: Empowering People. The Asscociation for Persons with Severe Handicaps, 14, 163-167.

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