Individual and family experiences of augmentative and alternative communication

In this Lug post, Ally Keane writes about her new doctoral research that is funded through the Northern Bridge doctoral training partnership. Ally will be using oral history to work with users of augmentative voice technologies and their families.


‘Electronic Voice.’ Image of Lightwriter SL35 in carry case. Device exhibited at National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh. © National Museums Scotland.

Oral historians have rightly stressed the importance of tone during interviews, which provides additional context to what the interviewees say.[1] My dissertation will investigate individual and family experiences of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) and will explore how oral history methodology can be adapted to suit the voices of AAC users as AAC produces monotone, evenly timed speech, which lacks the typical cues (such as pitch, timing, pausing/phrasing) that interviewees usually provide. To aid these aspects of oral history interviews, video recording will be used to see facial expressions, gestures, and posture to help decipher emotional states which are minimally expressed using AAC devices. This multidisciplinary approach will also examine the technological history and intersubjectivity of artificial voice, voice and its impact on identity, and develop a new oral history methodology attuned to the specificity of AAC voices.

AAC technologies first emerged in the 1950s and have developed to become the high-tech forms we’re familiar with today due to the increased battery power and smaller microprocessors which became available from the 1960s onwards. Histories exist for other assistive technologies (such as hearing aids and prosthetic limbs) including technologies and user experiences, a systematic historical account of AAC has yet to be written, and there is silent near silence on user, family, and carer experiences. My project uses oral history to follow medical history’s turn towards recovering patient experiences and voices and disability history’s emphasis on disabled people’s experiences and agency.[2]

‘Claudivs Converse Electronic Voice Unit.’ Image of Claudivs Converse, invented at the BT Test Equipment Design Centre in 1985. Device exhibited at The Science Museum, London. © Science Museum Group

Alongside the use of archival materials, I’ll undertake and analyse oral history interviews with AAC users and those closest to them. I hope to undertake c.20 interviews with AAC users and c.10 with family members, friends, or carers (i.e., those people who also usually become users themselves by aiding their loved ones to use their devices), recruiting through already established contacts as well as reaching out to charities and advocacy groups (such as Communication Matters).

I am looking forward to getting started on this work, after examining user involvement in the creation of AAC devices in my earlier research; it’ll be great to give users even more of a voice to share their experiences. I hope this new research will not just be of interest to me but will be useful for historians, as well as speech and language therapists, occupational therapists and other health professionals.


[1] See for example Anne Karpf, “The Human Voice and the Texture of Experience,” Oral History 42:2 (2014), 50-55 and Shelley Trower, Place, Writing, and Voice in Oral History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

[2] Flurin Condrau, “The Patient’s View Meets the Clinical Gaze,” Social History of Medicine 20:3 (2007): 525-40; Roy Porter, “The Patient’s View: Doing Medical History from Below,” Theory and Society 14 (1985): 175-98 and Catherine J. Kudlick, “Disability History: Why We Need Another “Other”,” The American Historical Review 108:3 (2003): 763-793.

Oral History Lunchtime Seminars: October 2022

The Oral History Unit and Collective has organised two lunchtime online seminars in October, with guest speakers from the UK, Egypt and India.

Wednesday October 12th: Oral history and activism – guest speakers @TionneParris (Young Historians Project) and @Nandini Oza (Narmada Bachao Andolan)

Event brite: Oral history and activism – an on-line lunchtime seminar Tickets, Wed 12 Oct 2022 at 13:00 | Eventbrite

Wednesday October 19th: Oral history with refugees and migrants – guest speakers Tania Gessi (Roma Support Group) and Nairy Abdel Shafy (Egyptian educator, and oral historian)

Event brite: Oral history with refugees and migrants – an online lunchtime seminar Tickets, Wed 19 Oct 2022 at 13:00 | Eventbrite

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“Communities and Change” – welcoming the 2023 Memory Studies Association to Newcastle

The international Memory Studies Association recently released the call for papers for its 2023 conference, to be held in Newcastle. Oral History Collective member Dr Alison Atkinson-Phillips is part of the organising committee. Here she explains why she’s so excited to see this particular conference held here in the North East.

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The Voices Of Stannington Sanatorium: Musings on Oral History and Creative Writing

In this Lug post, Dr Liz O’Donnell reflects on interviews that she conducted being reused and repurposed for a radio drama, considering the attachments that we as oral historians have to the data we collect.

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Authenticity and authority? Changing memories of Holocaust resistance

How Oral History helped to disrupt the appropriation of the ‘White Rose’ resistance

This year’s Brundibár Arts Festival was opened by Silvie Fisch of the Oral History Collective. The annual festival is dedicated to the music and arts of the Holocaust. This year’s festival theme is inspirational women and Silvie spoke about the changing public history of Sophie Scholl. Here is an edited version of Silvie’s talk.

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Animals in store: the Book Trade and Animal Histories

Here, Sue Bradley finds some half-forgotten animals and resolves to listen out for more. Sue is a member of the Newcastle University Oral History Unit and Collective and a Research Associate on FIELD (Farm-level Interdisciplinary Approaches to Endemic Livestock Disease) in Newcastle University’s Centre for Rural Economy. Her article, ‘Hobday’s hands: recollections of touch in veterinary practice’ appeared in Oral History, vol 49, no 1, 2021.

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“The timing has gone wrong”: Environmental history

Re-visiting environmental oral histories recorded over 20 years ago

As COP26 gets underway Siobhan Warrington who currently is working on the Living Deltas Hub, revisits a collection of oral histories recorded over 20 years ago with women and men living in mountain and highland regions around the world.

The timing has gone wrong,” stated Yagjung, a 59-year-old female weaver from Uttarkhand, India, interviewed in December 1996. She was referring to the weather, to the timing of the rain and the harvests, but the idea that ‘the timing has gone wrong’ has wider relevance.  Campaigners and journalists talk about climate change ‘happening now’ but for Yagjung and other mountain farmers around the world, the ‘now’ of environmental degradation and climatic changes, was 25 years ago. 

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“Older people are more concerned with environmental change…”: Living Deltas Hub

In this Lug piece, Siobhan Warrington (NUOHUC) and her colleagues Hue Nguyen (An Giang University) and Laura Beckwith (Northumbria University) provide an update on the participatory oral history, mapping and photography work with two rural communities in the Mekong Delta as part of the Living Deltas Hub. Siobhan, Laura and Hue are working with a student-staff research team at An Giang University: Mai Thị Minh Thuy and Nguyễn Xuân Lan (research coordinators); and Hoang Uyen Cao, Huynh Linh, Lam Duy and Phan Cuong (student researchers). This is a follow-up to the post which introduced this project.

Note: Due to increasing Covid-19 infection rates in Vietnam, it has not been possible for the team to visit the communities since early July; this post is based on their visits between May and July 2021.

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