The Open Communication Symbols Ecosystem

— 6 minute read

Many people without speech use symbols each and everyday to aid or enable communication with others. The current COVID pandemic means more people now find themselves literally speechless while on breathing support such as CPAP or are simply too weak to speak. Fortunately there is a growing number of free or open symbols sets and apps providing low cost tools.

AAC permalink

Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) is a term that describes a set of techniques and tools that support people who have difficulties communicating, especially if they do not have speech. Such difficulties may result from congenital disabilities such as Cerebral Palsey or may be acquired, for example Aphasia caused by a stroke.

The basic idea of AAC is to create printed or interactive electronic grids of symbols that capture common needs or thoughts that a person wants to communicate. The symbols may be use individually or strung into sentences by the user either pointing to them with a finger or by looking at them (eye pointing). Low tech versions are printed on paper and high tech solutions use 'eye tracking' and speech synthesis.

COVID19 has resulted in more people finding themselves unable to easily express their wishes or communicate with loved ones. While there are several proprietary AAC tools to support them there is also a growing number of free and open solutions. This is important as the experts in distilling the entire language needs of someone into a usable set of charts of symbols, Speech and Language Therapists ("SALT"s in the UK), are more often than not running on a "shoestring" budget (like most of our Health and Social Care sectors).

Mulberry Symbols permalink

Some time ago I took over stewardship of the Mulberry Symbols which in addition to providing symbols aimed at adult users which are often unavailable in proprietary sets, are also low cost and freely sharable or modifiable. They are thus also compatible with flexible online use.

One of key questions in my mind is how can we make sure that SALTs can easily choose and use the symbols they want for users. While we provide a downloadable zip archive of all the symbol files they can be fiddly to create boards with. We also have a slightly "hacky" way to download individual symbols.

Print boards are usually made using a word processor or presentation software and the symbols then have to be inserted or dragged into place and then scaled. Use in AAC apps often involves other complexities, including the need to transform the symbols into a format that the app will accept. The Symbols also come with English names which makes it difficult to find and use in other languages. We do have a file mapping to Finnish names.

While we could expand the options for accessing and using Mulberry Symbols there are fortunately a growing ecosystem of open solutions that help address these issues.

The Open Symbols ecosystem permalink

Global Symbols - Global Symbols collects and creates free and open AAC symbol sets, tools and resources. The Linguistically and culturally localised resources provide world wide access to appropriate pictographic based communication. Several of the resources described below are provided by the Global Symbols team and friends.

Open AAC - The Open AAC initiative exists to create and encourage open-licensed resources and tools to support AAC users. It introduces a number of key concepts including the Open Board Format discussed below.

Finding Symbols - Both Global Symbols and Open Symbols provide online tools for exploring, selecting and downloading symbols from a range of open sets, including Mulberry. Some symbols are also available in multiple languages They also offer other facilities for editing symbols or providing associated meta data.

Internationalisation and Localisation - This gets a little complex. Some symbol sets have symbols names in a specific language and the symbols might be culturally specific. A good example is the Tawasol Arabic set. If a symbol set is to be more globally useful then the names need to be available in multiple languages and some of the symbols will need alternatives. In fact some symbols may only be required for some cultures. And remember, culture and language are often not the same thing. Practically the symbols should be searchable across range of languages and cultures.

Open Source projects traditionally have very good internationalisation support and many community contributions take the form of translations. I hope the open symbols ecosystem will benefit from this crowd sourcing. In fact, Global Symbols has a translation tool that uses online translation tools to get an initial rough automated translation which can then be reviewed manually for correctness.

Creating Boards - selecting symbols and placing them into boards is a common requirement. When the board is to be printed Office documents are often used and templates and samples like those from the CommuniKate project can be really helpful. AAC apps usually have their own way of designing boards but now the Open Board Format (OBF) initiative is proposing an open and standard board format. This will allow easy interchange of boards between Apps and so open up the ecosystem for collaboration and innovation. I hope OBF will be adopted by all AAC solutions.

One App that makes the most of OBF is BoardBuilder from Global Symbols which allows you to create and modify boards, print them or export in the OBF format for use in AAC apps. A number of sample boards are also provided.

Creating, modifying and Sharing Symbols - Symbols sets are never complete and the users probably want individualised symbols. After all, symbols are often a person's main or only language so they want them personal. Open Symbols provide an opportunity for community collaboration on symbols through the flexible permissive licenses that allow free modification, possibly with the condition to share new symbols under the same licence. It's generally also good manners to provide new derived symbols back to the original project so others can benefit. Global symbols also provide a little online symbol creator tool.

AAC Apps - Both Cboard and Coughdrop are full featured Open Source AAC Apps. They support OBF and 'books' of connected boards where a symbol in one board links to another board, allowing for complex symbol collections. both provide speech output of sentences built with symbols. AsTeRICS is a flexible platform for AAC and alternative input; it now supports OBF and has a web version called AsTeRICS Grid.

Training - Creating usable boards is a skill requiring understanding of language and more. Fortunately, Global Symbols have created a number of free training resources in collaboration with UNICEF.

Come Join Us permalink

So in summary, there is a growing ecosystem of open symbols and tools. Not only do these provide low cost solutions but they also enable collaborative community development so we can better support AAC users. This will work best when we have collaborators involved with all aspects of creating and using symbols. Please join us! Here's the Open AAC slack channel.