Open formats in AAC: Part 1

This is the first part in a four part series of posts on the subject of open formats in Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC). You can read the second part here, the third part here and the forth part here.

So when I was preparing to talk to Communication Matters this year I wrote a talk, but a few days before the conference I changed my mind I decided that if I wanted people to actually work together then a lecture wasn’t the right thing to be using. Instead we put on a discussion group – and had a few people giving opinions and it went (I believe) very well.

Still, the talk is lying around, and in the spirit of recycling – I thought I’d rewrite it as a series of blog posts. It was always intended to workshop some concepts and start a conversation.

This isn’t a ‘look at this cool thing I did’ post, it’s a ‘hey, here are some problems, let’s talk about the solutions’ post, and I’ve kind of planned it around the assumption that there would only ever be about nine people interested in it 🙂

So I’m going to start by outlining three problems with AAC devices and then I’m going to propose a couple of things, and I’d like to hear from readers about how they might affect users and other groups.  Actually in this post – I’m just going to do the first problem – and hopefully I’ll come back and write the rest soon.

So the problems…


People who have read some of my work will recognise the Domesday Dataset, which is a record of AAC purchases made by NHS trusts since 2006, it includes dates and details, prices and provenance, makes and manufactures. Obviously very useful for a variety of research things and there is lots more information on it on the subpage.

When I was constructing the dataset I obviously had to take a lot of data of this form:

Screen Shot 2013-09-20 at 15.22.17

and put it in a nicely regular form. lots of these items would come in and I’d have to look up the prices for them, and in many cases I just couldn’t. I had to resort to going back though old catalogues, begging for prices on forums and twitter and, Communication Matters in 2012. I eventually put a lot of them together, but here’s the thing: I’m only looking at purchases from five years ago, and pretty much all of these were devices that are meant to have a five year lifespan (I’m quite happy to go back though the data and work out the percentage of purchases made in 2009 that are still on sale in 2013 if that’s a thing that people are interested in)

Consider this scenario where a user buys a device with a five year lifespan, and after five years it breaks.  You can imagine the attitude being ‘okay, that’s fair, I’ve been rigorously backing up in the way the manual said, and now I’ll go and get a replacement, load up my backups and I’ll be able to talk again, tell those old stories, call my friends by name’. But then you go and try and buy a replacement and it turns out they’ve not been sold for the last two years, and anything else you buy won’t take your backups. and, presuming you can get a new device, suddenly you’re learning a new device with new layout, none of your old words and a whole bunch of problems.

I have to ask, is it better to have a five year lifespan and five year warranty, but only be on sale for 18 months, or is it better to have a two-year lifespan, and be on sale for 10-years?

EDIT – Part 2 went up a week later and can be found here

5 thoughts on “Open formats in AAC: Part 1

  1. In my opinion neither are acceptable! I often hear AAC devices are just like cars. You need a new or upgraded one on a fairly regular basics however there is a huge difference between cars and AAC. Should you choose to keep your 10 year old car, the likely hood is you will be able to get the parts and find the garage who can support you to do this. Whilst it’s great to to have all singing all dancing if the support to learn or maintain the system is not available things fall apart and sadly that’s all to often the case for people who use AAC. For example I have heard of one AAC user, who has brought up all the parts available to maintain his device, his voice, his identity. In my opinion if AAC manufacturers came together to write software, that allowed backups to talk to each other we maybe one step closer to addressing a small part of this issue.

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