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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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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“I used to love standing barefoot in the river”: Living Deltas Hub

In this Lug piece, Siobhan Warrington  introduces the Living Deltas Hub and provides an update on how the Newcastle Oral History Unit & Collective is contributing to this large, five-year (2019-2024) international and interdisciplinary project. 

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Happy birthday, Metro!

August 11th 2020 marks the 40th anniversary of the Tyne and Wear Metro. In this Lug Post, Andy Clark confesses to his enthusiasm for all things railway-related and discusses a new oral history project that NOHUC are supporting on forty years of the Metro.

The iconic Metro ‘M’ at Four Lane Ends Interchange. Author’s picture
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The Launch of The Newcastle Oral History Unit Podcast

As Graham Smith wrote last week, we have been devising ways to continue contributing to oral history theory and practise during the Covid-19 lockdown period. One long-term aim that we’ve been able to realise is a new oral history podcast. In this Lug post, Andy Clark talks about the process behind making the podcast and what listeners can expect to hear over the coming weeks and months.

You can listen to the podcast on the following hosting platforms: Spotify; Radio Public; Podbean; Pocket Casts. The RSS Feed for the pod is https://feed.podbean.com/nohuc/feed.xml

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Funded PhD opportunity: Oral History’s Design: A creative collaboration.

Sustaining visitor (re)use of oral histories on heritage sites: The National Trust’s Seaton Delaval Hall AS A case study.

Oral history’s popularity as an active collecting method and archiving tool have outstripped the level of reuse of oral histories in historical interpretation. And while oral history’s limited reuse of archived oral histories has attracted some interest, this is based mainly on proposed digital technical fixes. Significantly, there is relatively less research on the dissemination of oral histories and their reception by audiences. Oral history as an emerging discipline has yet to adequately integrate users and audiences into the processes of analysis and reuse.

The PhD project draws on oral history reuse theory and practice in combination with design science to explore ways of addressing reusability. We are particularly keen to explore how heritage site visitors might become active curators and historians in reusing oral histories from an existing on-site archive and how in turn new data could be generated to shape future collecting. The PhD will generate, in partnership, new knowledge to understand and address visitors’ active engagement in interpreting the past through a case study utilising the National Trust’s oral history archive at Seaton Delaval Hall.

Terry Whalebone, 2006, CC BY 2.0 (no changes)

With the support of the local community, Seaton Delaval Hall was acquired by the National Trust ten years ago. Although a recent acquisition in Trust terms, the Hall shares with its locality a rich and significant history, including being the site of a Second World War POW camp. Much of The Hall is currently undergoing major repair and conservation, including a large engagement programme, embedding collaborative practice across the site and encouraging relevance and legacy for the Hall within the local community. Over the next few years, the site will offer opportunities to rethink and experiment with programming and interpretation. The Hall currently primarily focuses on one aspect of history, the Delaval Family, but there is an acute awareness that this is an incomplete picture. Staff and volunteers at the Hall are also interested in exploring a 360-degree interpretation of history. This is, therefore, a timely opportunity to approach this collection, archiving and engagement holistically from the outset. Above all else, the Trust staff want to ensure that Seaton Delaval Hall’s oral histories are not only collected and archived but that they are sustainable.

Design science in this project offers the possibility for a change in how oral history archives are created, curated, accessed, and most significantly in their use and reuse. This will be achieved by the student establishing a network of people from different, relevant, subject-areas and engaging them in a design-facilitated creative discourse around the specific issues identified above. By ensuring that archive creators, staff and volunteers, local community members, and visitors are involved in this network, needs and opportunities will be identified, and insights and ideas harvested and developed in design.

By researching and immersing themselves in the culture of oral history as a set of practices and theories from collection to reuse, the student will be able to create a deeper understanding of barriers and opportunities. Working together with oral historians at Newcastle, design thinkers at Northumbria and staff and volunteers at the Hall they will aim to create a new active archiving and curation system. This system will also aim to support accessibility for all and open to wider interpretations. Following the development of the system, prototyping and testing will be conducted at Hall with visitors with the findings disseminated through the Trust and beyond. The Hall, as a site for experimentation, has been identified to undertake development and shares learning at a regional and national level within the Trust. This PhD research would, therefore, include sharing lessons to regional and national colleagues across the Trust and within the wider heritage sector.

This Northern Bridge Collaborative Doctoral Award is offered through a three-way collaboration involving colleagues from the National Trust, Northumbria School of Design and History, Classics and Archaeology at Newcastle. The supervisory team will be led by Graham Smith, Oral History Unit and Collective (OHUC), with Mark Bailey, Northumbria, and Jo Moody and Emma Thomas, National Trust.

The successful applicant will be located in the Oral History Unit and Collective (OHUC) at Newcastle, and will also have a place within Northumbria’s Design-led Responsible Innovation Practice Research group. This will provide the student with access to CoCreate and the wider Northumbria PGR community which has an established programme of doctoral support promoting interdisciplinary dialogue and collaboration. Research in the School of Design has developed to embrace both practice-based, action research and fundamental theoretical studies. Especially relevant to this study, the school has particular expertise in externally engaged, applied participatory research supported by dedicated research studios within CoCreate, a research group which explores societal challenges and cultural experiences through participatory and design-led research, with an emphasis on interaction and social design and creative practice.

OHUC at Newcastle has a core team of four PDRAs and four Associate Researchers. OHUC was launched in January 2018 and operates within Newcastle University’s School of History, Classics and Archaeology. Working across diverse academic disciplines, from creative arts to medicine, and in partnership with local history groups and community historians, the Unit’s work explores the role of oral history in communicating the past in the present with particular reference to historical justice. OHUC produces globally significant research while attending to regional and civic responsibilities. Using oral history as both a method and a source in public history settings, OHUC shares the common agenda of co-researching memory and historical narratives through reflective practices and theories, with the Collective providing a forum for knowledge exchange that explores the dynamics of individual and social memories and historical narratives. The Unit is therefore ideally suited as a research environment for this PhD, providing opportunities for engagement with knowledge-exchange activities and interdisciplinary explorations within the university and with community oral historians in the region.

The student will also have access to an extensive range of National Trust training including working with volunteers, managing change, communication, and leadership and will be allocated working space at Seaton Delaval in addition to a place in the Oral History Unit’s team.

Applicants should have experience of oral history and design. Excellent first and second degrees. Enquiries should be made to  graham.smith@newcastle.ac.uk For further details of how to apply for this Northern Bridge Collaborative Doctoral Award

Mutinous Memories and Survivor Memorials: Report on Collective book launch

A sizeable audience gathered in the Armstrong Building on Wednesday 5 June for the joint launch of two exciting new publications by members of the Oral History Unit & Collective: Research Associate Alison Atkinson-Phillips’s Survivor Memorials: Remembering Trauma and Loss In Contemporary Australia (University of Western Australia Publishing) and Reader in Labour History Matt Perry’s Mutinous Memories: A Subjective History of French Military Protest in 1919 (Manchester University Press). Jack Hepworth reports. 

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