Exploring Communication Assistants as an Option for Increasing Communication Access to Communities for People who use Augmentative Communication (summary)

communication assistants


Community participation and inclusion are fundamental principles within the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and communication is central to this process. It is therefore important to identify supports needed by people who use AAC (PWUAAC) to enable them to fully participate in society and to communicate with others within their communities.

People with complex communication needs (CCN) report a number of communication barriers with unfamiliar people, which can increase feelings of social isolation.

PWUAAC often rely on others to help them communicate with unfamiliar communication partners.

This paper looks at a pilot project to provide trained communication assistants to PWUAAC, to assist them in communicating within their communities.

What did the authors do?

The project took place in Canada over a period of 9 months.

A group of 9 PWUAAC were offered up to 14 hours per month each, of trained communication assistant time to help support their communication with other people, either face-to-face, over the telephone or in written communication. The assistants were to:

  • ensure the accuracy of the participants message
  • make sure the communication partner knew that the message was from the AAC user
  • support direct communication between the two parties
  • increase opportunities and quality of interaction between the AAC user and the other communication partner.

The nine participants had all expressed a need for communication assistance within their communities and used a range of communication methods and skills.

Thirteen communication assistants were recruited; the majority were students with no previous experience or training in working with PWUAAC.

Each participant was interviewed to find out their barriers to communication and the situations in which they wanted support or help.

The assistants were given 30 hours of classroom based training and 5 to 20 hours of practical training including coaching with PWUAAC.

The AAC users were also given training including group and individual sessions.

Each participant was paired with two communication assistants for the duration of the project. They could book an assistant, identifying on the booking system the type of support they required and the location.

What did they find?

The needs assessment found that the highest areas of need for communication support were meeting new people and communicating in a group, which might include other PWUAAC.

There were also requests for support at appointments and in specific social, educational and work-related activities, communicating over the telephone and with writing and using the internet.

8 of the 9 participants identified used the service, but all under-used their allocated time. The amount of time used increased for all participants over the duration of the project.

Overall the assistants' time was used as follows:

15% - preparing for communication events, including pre-programming messages into voice output devices

23% - making phone calls, assisting with writing and supporting internet searches

62% - communicating directly in face-to face interactions with either familiar or unfamiliar communication partners and other PWUAAC.

Participant feedback showed that all AAC users who used the service reported a high level of satisfaction and wanted the project to continue.

Feedback from community based communication partners was also positive.


The number of participants and assistants in the project was small and so they cannot be said to reflect the views of all PWUAAC.

Training was not offered to the AAC users existing support network of family friends and paid staff to support them in facilitating communication rather than paid assistants.

The assistants were all from similar educational backgrounds, no consideration was given to the impact of different backgrounds and experiences on this type of service.

Further research into the training offered to AAC uses and communication assistants is needed.

The project took place over a relatively short time period. A longer term project and ongoing monitoring is needed.


The researchers believe that the project demonstrated that the use of trained communication assistants can reduce barriers to communication for PWUAAC within their communities and increase their confidence and independence in participating in their communities.

Things you may want to look into:

A qualitative study of adult AAC users' experiences communicating with medical providers 

Post-School Quality of Life for Individuals with Developmental Disabilities Who Use AAC 

A summary of the articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 

Added to site September 2014