NSF grant in support of Augmentative and Alternative Communication



Christina Holyfield



Photo by University Relations

Christina Holyfield

The National Science Foundation’s Convergence Accelerator awarded a $749,960 grant to an interdisciplinary research team from the U of A and Temple University.

The team will develop supplemental and alternative communication technologies enhanced by artificial intelligence to improve outcomes for people with developmental disabilities who have limited speech and language.

Christine Holyfield, Associate Professor of Communication Studies and Disorders at U of A, is the principal investigator. Elizabeth Lorah, an Associate Professor of Curriculum and Instruction, is the Co-Principal Investigator. About half of the grant goes to Temple University computer science researchers as part of the award.

The researchers noted in their proposal that millions of Americans struggle with limitations in their speech and language. These limitations may include “lack of language, language that most communicators do not understand, and limited language understanding.” The consequences of this can lead to alienation from daily life, including the ability to participate in social, school, and work activities.

Holyfield underscored the importance of limited language by paraphrasing Michael Williams, an advocate of communication technology: “Communication is a basic human need, a basic human right and a fundamental human force. Through communication, all people participate and influence changes in their daily lives.”

Augmentative and Alternative Communication devices, or AAC devices for short, can help people with speech and language disabilities to express their thoughts, needs and ideas. However, they are not without challenges, including teaching users how to interact with these devices, personalizing the devices to fit each user’s communication needs, and making communication as smooth as possible.

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The team believes artificial intelligence could be the key to rapid advances in AAC device development. The aim of the convergence grant is to create AAC enhanced by artificial intelligence. Areas of computer science that should prove helpful include natural language processing and computer vision, which could teach computers to interpret and recognize the visual world and provide helpful labels and prompts for users.

Through a collaborative, iterative process, the research team will gather input from stakeholders, monitor how users explore AI-powered AAC devices, and validate the concepts through rapid prototyping and user testing. Improved communication support from these devices would lead to better educational outcomes and increased labor market participation for people with communication disabilities, while benefiting their families and the professionals who support them.

“The more burdens we can take away from individuals and put on technology, the better,” Holyfield said.

The Convergence Accelerator program and grants awarded are part of NSF’s new Directorate of Technology, Innovation and Partnerships. The grant is aligned with Track H, “Enhancing Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities” and represents Phase 1, a team convergence and proof-of-concept development phase. After the first year, the Holyfield team will participate in a formal NSF pitch and a Phase 2 proposal, which must consider how its innovation can be made sustainable. Selected teams will then advance to Phase 2, which will provide up to $5 million in additional funding.

About the University of Arkansas: As the flagship Arkansas institution, the U of A offers internationally competitive education in more than 200 academic programs. Founded in 1871, the U of A contributes more than $2.2 billion to the Arkansas economy by imparting new knowledge and skills, entrepreneurship and workplace development, discovery through research and creative pursuits, while providing training in professional disciplines. The Carnegie Foundation ranks the U of A among the few US colleges and universities with the highest research activity. US News & World Report ranks the U of A among the best public universities in the country. See how the U of A works to create a better world at Arkansas Research News.

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