Happy and excited: Perceptions of using digital technology and social media by young people who use augmentative and alternative communication (summary)



Digital Technology (DT) and online social media (OSM) are now an important part of life for adolescents and young adults. The UK government believes that the use of these can increase opportunities for social inclusion.

Young people with severe motor impairment and complex communication needs (CCN) who use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) have many challenges that can make social inclusion, in a traditional sense, more difficult than for other people, however the use of DT and OSM has the potential to change this.

Voice Output Communication Aids (VOCAs) and apps have been developed that enable people with CCN who also have literacy problems to use symbolised vocabulary software to post on social media in a text based format.

There is limited research into the use of DT and OSM by people who use AAC (PWUAAC).

What did they do?

The research aimed to; look at the views of PWUAAC regarding accessibility of the internet and OSM and their use of these systems, consider the role and importance of the internet and OSM for self-determination and self-representation and to establish how PWUAAC perceived OSM in terms of social ties.

Twenty five people aged from 14 to 24 were involved in the study. The participants used a range of high and low-tech AAC systems.

Videoed, semi-structured interviews were used to gather data that was analysed into six categories for further analysis.

What did they find?

They found that the participants had a strong desire to use the internet and their self-determination was felt to increase, through giving them more independence to organise their own lives. Participants felt that Facebook particularly increased opportunities for self-representation as they could choose what they posted online. Some felt that other people understood them better in writing than face-to-face. It was also found that the use of OSM made it easier to keep in contact with people and so maintain friendships.

A variety of methods were used to access the technology, but not all participants were aware of the options or had them available. PWUAAC generally valued the ability to access the technology independently, but they often relied on family members or personal staff to produce and share online content.


Lack of access to, or knowledge of, specialised equipment, thus preventing independent use of DT and OSM can create a form of 'digital exclusion' for PWUAAC. In addition poor literacy skills made it difficult to use the systems independently. This is not always being addressed by the website providers despite the fact that they have a duty to 'ensure people have access to cultural materials'.

The participants used a range of sites typical of people of their age and felt frustrated if they could not go online. They would like to use DT and OSM more frequently than they were able.

The self-representation available through Facebook was viewed very positively, enhancing self-image and helping PWUAAC to be understood by others.

The use of OSM was felt by the participants to increase opportunities to 'talk' to other people more easily than face-to-face and to keep in touch over distance.

The research suggests that family support is important in promoting DT use. It also indicates that support is needed from educational settings to reduce the likelihood of digital exclusion for people with CCN.


The use of narrative techniques to explore the views and perceptions of people with CCN is not an obvious match, but the authors believe it was the 'best fit' for their research objectives.

Things you may want to look into:

Technology for people, not disabilities: ensuring access and inclusion

An examination of relations between participation, communication and age in children with complex communication needs

The Loneliness Experiences of Young Adults with Cerebral Palsy who use Alternative and Augmentative Communication

Learning to use the Internet and online social media: What is the effectiveness of home-based intervention for youth with complex communication needs?

Connecting the AAC Community through Social Media

Added to site August 2015