A virtual environment that delivers noticeable improvements in functional communication for those with aphasia by providing increased access to speech and language therapy
Research centre: Centre for Human-Computer Interaction Design
Aphasia is a language impairment that’s caused by brain damage. It’s most commonly caused by a stroke and it’s thought to affect approximately 350,000 people in the UK.
The condition can impair someone’s ability to speak, to understand what people say, or to read or write. People with aphasia can also struggle to use digital technology. It’s very variable, so each person’s experience of it can be different.
One of the big challenges for those who suffer from aphasia is that it’s a hidden disability. It can have a big impact on their social interactions and confidence when they are out.
Although the most common treatment for aphasia is speech therapy, many people in the UK don’t receive enough help to make a real impact. Providing access to this support is another challenge that the project sought to address.
Since 2010, Professor Stephanie Wilson, from City’s Centre for Human Computer Interaction Design, and researchers from the University’s Division of Language and Communication Science have been exploring how digital technology can help deliver therapy to those with aphasia.
The first collaboration between the two departments explored how to help people with very severe aphasia make better gestures. The aim was to help them communicate more effectively.
The success of this work led to the EVA Park project, which started in 2015 and was funded by the Stroke Association. The aim was to create an online virtual world where people with aphasia could meet therapists and support workers to practice talking in a safe and fun virtual environment.
Co-design is an important element of these projects. It means people with aphasia are employed on the project alongside the researchers.
EVA Park is a non-immersive online virtual world. It’s a place where people with aphasia can feel safe and practice holding conversations that they would experience in their everyday lives.
The interdisciplinary team have worked hard to create an environment that’s accessible to people with aphasia, especially those who struggle with digital technology.
Initially, 20 people with aphasia were given access to the virtual world to meet a trainee speech and language therapist and practice talking in situations where they wanted to improve their language skills. This ranged from talking to their child’s teacher to ordering a coffee in a café.
Professor Wilson and her team found that EVA Park helped people with aphasia improve their functional communication.
EVA Park has been a huge success. It won the Tech4Good People’s Award in 2015 and was named as one of the Nominet Trust’s 100 worldwide projects for social good in 2016.
Future plans and benefits
Following its success, the team have been exploring other uses for EVA Park. These include how it can be used to deliver social support, as well as other kinds of speech and language therapy.
The team are working with the Stroke Association to roll out access to EVA Park across the UK and potentially further afield.
Their latest project is developing apps to help people with aphasia develop their creative skills. These include apps for creative writing, as well as creating comic strips and mixed media content.
EVA Park and these other related projects have a wide-reaching impact.
There are obvious benefits in terms of helping people with aphasia improve their speech or create digital content using these new digital tools. The co-designers have grown in confidence and had the opportunity to share their experiences at conferences.
More generally, Professor Wilson and her team are raising awareness of aphasia, both in communities and among digital designers. The team have run workshops for digital designers on how to design for aphasia, which is another area they intend to expand.
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