Imagine waking up in hospital and finding that you can no longer talk. You also struggle to understand what others are saying, and reading and writing are difficult. These problems are faced by about 30,000 people in the UK each year who get aphasia following a stroke.
Aphasia has a huge impact on a person’s quality of life. Friendships suffer, work may become impossible, and many of those affected feel lonely and depressed. Indeed one study found the effects of aphasia were more devastating than in 59 other medical conditions, including cancer and Alzheimer’s Disease.
Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) researchers at City, University of London have been investigating how the fast-developing field of digital technology can be harnessed to help people with aphasia.
This case study describes how Professor Stephanie Wilson has led her HCI team in supporting people with aphasia in their recovery of language and communication abilities, as well as for their wider well-being and digital inclusion.
What did we explore and how?
Over 300,000 people in the UK are living with aphasia and we can expect this number to grow as our population ages. This language disorder can occur after any form of brain damage, but the most common cause is stroke.
Despite the challenges they face, people with aphasia are often excluded from studies of the general stroke population, meaning their problems are not fully understood. Many digital technologies are also inaccessible to people with aphasia because of the language skills required.
In 2010, Professor Wilson, her team and collaborators in City’s Division of Language and Communication Science, saw that there was limited use of technology in therapy for aphasia, scant awareness of the condition within the digital design community, and no guidance on how to design for people with aphasia.
Their initial research included investigating gesture therapy for people with severe aphasia, creating ‘GeST’, the first software tool to use gesture recognition and gamification to help people with aphasia learn how to make gestures.
The next major step was the design and development of ‘EVA Park’, the first multi-user virtual environment for people with aphasia. EVA Park provides a fun and accessible space where people can meet for speech therapy and social support, and studies showed that these can be delivered through the platform to enhance communication, and address social isolation.
The CommuniCATE project investigated how mainstream technologies, such as video-conferencing software, could be re-purposed to deliver new treatments for reading, writing and conversation.
Most recently, the researchers undertook work into digital content creation, creating the MakeWrite app that helps compensate for lost creative writing skills; CreaTable, a tangible table-top for creating multimedia digital content; and Comic Spin, an app for creating comic strips.
Benefits and influence of this research
The main beneficiaries of this research are people with aphasia who benefit both directly from the new technologies for therapy and content creation, and indirectly from the wide-reaching influence the research has had in the fields of therapeutic technologies and digital accessibility.
Further beneficiaries are practitioners who provide therapeutic and social support services and designers of digital services and products.
In 2015, EVA Park won the Tech4Good People’s Award and the European Disability Forum featured EVA Park in its 2018 report on opportunities of emerging technologies for persons with disabilities.
Also in 2018, 30 UK Speech and Language Therapy services registered to use EVA Park and, during the Covid-19 pandemic, EVA Park was rolled out to a further 46 stroke and aphasia services across nine countries including the USA, Australia, Spain and Bermuda.
To date, over 200 people with aphasia have directly benefited from technology-enhanced therapy developed on the CommuniCATE project. Those involved reported transformative individual benefits such as being able to read a book for the first time since their stroke.
Skills training on digital accessibility for aphasia have also been delivered to designers at major public and private organisations including NHS Digital, the Home Office Digital Service, Government Digital Services and Aviva.
A further 800 digital designers have been reached through Language-Light User Experience training workshops, MSc training, and talks at London Accessibility Meetup Group, Service Labs London meet-up and the User Experience Professionals Association UK.
Globally available resources include the first poster on accessible design for aphasia.
Details of this research
Research status: Ongoing
Industry/sector: Accessibility, Digital Technology, Speech and Language Therapy