Dream big, work hard, be resilient

An overview of Communication Matters International AAC Conference 11 – 13 September 2022

By Charlie Danger @DangerOT

Charlie Danger is an Occupational Therapist at CENMAC in this blog he shares his visit to Communication Matters International AAC Conference that took place from 11 – 13 September 2022.

Image: AAC Professionals – Charlie (@DangerOT) and Ruth (@RuthAnnWilliam3)

September marks a time in the diary for many AAC users, their families, and professionals, to gather in Leeds for the annual Communication Matters (CM) conference. As an organisation, Communication Matters is a registered charity and the UK chapter of the International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication (ISAAC). In addition to the conference, CM is involved in campaigning, establishing national standards, research, provision of small grants, publications and more. The Board of Trustees includes AAC users, suppliers, and professionals – including two who work here at CENMAC 🙂

It’s not all AAC 

The conference is popular and busy, with many seminars taking place concurrently. One feature that draws the crowds is the large number of seminars that are delivered by AAC users and their families. This year I was fortunate to attend a session delivered by Greta McMillan, a successful Edinburgh-based artist who uses eye-gaze to create paintings, metalwork, and mini sculptures. She has recently become involved in filmmaking and has already won an award!

The Future

Greta has found herself a very inspiring & exciting art career, demonstrating the potential of what can be achieved through hard work, great support and the appropriate technology. Similar inspiration came from the keynote speaker, Richard Cave, who reported back on the latest progress in Google’s Project Euphonia and now Project Relate. For many years, people with atypical speech have been asking if there is a way for technology to recognise their dysarthric speech and convert this into a clear, digital voice. This seemed impossible until recently, with the forthcoming release of the Project Relate app which will do exactly this, all from simplicity of an Android smartphone.

The Professionals 

Also to be found at the conference are the many teachers, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, clinical scientists and technologists that work hard in the NHS, CENMAC and the charity organisations to ensure that AAC meets the needs of users and that its constantly improving. There were many fascinating presentations designed to help us improve our work and keep us all in the loop of what is going on in the UK and beyond (from as far away as Israel, thank you Dana Cappel!). I found myself presenting to a packed room on my own research into the use of aided language stimulation in English classrooms, and it was great to overhear people discussing my findings in various corners around the conference afterwards 🙂 

The Suppliers  

The exhibition hall is filled with the latest technology from the suppliers who have been busy making substantial improvements over the last year. Some notable new tech relevant to my role at CENMAC includes the new motor-planning based vocabulary for TD Snap, a major voice banking upgrade to MindExpress 5, the addition of Universal Core 36 symbols to Sensory Guru’s Magic Room, and the Rehadapter speech-generating iPad case that supports eye-gaze and head-pointing. The suppliers don’t just make and sell AAC stuff, though, their expertise is also brought into many of the seminars including a very interesting look at vocabularies and (inadvertently) Gestalt Language Processing from Becky Martin of Smartbox 

A new vocabulary in a new case courtesy of TobiiDynavox. Twitter / @dangerOT 

The Wombles 

For many people the reason to take the journey to Leeds is to catch up with similar-minded people and remain excited about AAC for 48 hours straight. The CM team are great at pulling people together and encouraging networking through the exhibition hall, the dinners, a disco, trips to the bar and the fancy dress competition. This year the Scottish Centre of Technology for the Communication Impaired (SCTCI) won the prize for best fancy dress – something most of us predicted given their method acting approach to wombling.  

The Wombles. Attribution: Twitter / @marsscotia

Beth Moulam 

It’s usual at the end of a conference to feel full of new knowledge, ideas and optimism for the year ahead. Communication Matters took this feeling to an extreme this year by ending the conference with a plenary by a Paralympian, Beth Moulam. She shared her story from little girl to world class athlete and drew parallels between her paralympic challenges and opportunities and those that AAC has provided her. A fascinating story which gave me and my good friend Ruth Williams lots to discuss on the long train journey home.  I leave you with the words of Beth “Dream big, word hard, be resilient”.

See you next year! 

Image: Beth Moulam. Twitter / @CALLScotland