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Making time for a chat with Professor Stephen Hawking

Posted on 10/02/2015

Linda Page, Speech and Language Therapy Service Lead for AAC with NHS Scotland, explains how renowned theoretical physicist, Professor Stephen Hawking, communicates using Alternative and Augmentative Communication (AAC), and how time is an important factor when having a successful conversation.

By sharing his passion for his work and bringing science to our homes through the medium of television and print, Professor Stephen Hawking has come to be known as one of the greatest thinkers of our time. He is also known for having one of the most instantly recognisable voices, through his use of AAC in the form of a voice output communication aid.

In a recent television appearance, Professor Hawking, who has Motor Neurone Disease, discussed artificial intelligence and his new communication system, which is described as being able to learn how the Professor thinks and suggest the words he might want to do next. This sounds magical, however, anyone who uses any method of AAC knows there is much more to it, and that time is key to any interaction.

I have often been asked about Professor Hawking and how he is able to express his views using AAC. Many people believe his voice output communication aid is powered by thought waves, but it is actually a much simpler process which takes time and practice to implement.

Using a process of scanning using a single switch and specialist software, Professor Hawking is able to select a letter, function key, predicated word or pre-stored phrase, allowing him to build up messages to be spoken or inserted into documents. The Professor has only very minimal movement and accesses a switch that is attached to his glasses using the movement of a muscle just below his eye. When we see him ‘speak’ on television, his communication looks instantaneous – but that is not what it is like in real life for the professor or for anyone who uses AAC. For each television appearance, Professor Hawking has spent a huge amount of time preparing what he is going to say ready for filming. We don’t see the time and effort he has had to put in, hence the fact that it looks instantaneous. Advancing technology has improved the AAC solutions that we can provide to children and adults with communication difficulties, however technology is not the whole story for someone who uses AAC. The role of the communication partner is crucial, which is why seeing Professor Hawking ‘speaking’ on television can be misleading.

Just recently I had a conversation with Barry, a gentleman who has used a Lightwriter voice output communication aid for many years, about what makes a good conversation for him. This was something he was keen to explore in depth in order to pass on some tips about being a good conversation partner to the people he meets and in the presentations he gives about his experiences as someone who uses AAC.

In our conversation Barry identified five top tips which help him have a good conversation:

  • Give me time to talk to you
  • Talk to me and not my support worker
  • Don’t finish my sentences for me
  • Don’t read the screen on my device – look at me
  • Don’t pretend to have understood me – be honest in our interaction

If we all follow these top tips we can all enjoy a good conversation with Barry, Professor Hawking, or anyone who uses AAC.

For more information about AAC visit Now Hear Me, Developed on behalf of NHS Education for Scotland (NES), Now Hear Me is a gateway to information and advice aimed at helping people understand the needs of individuals who may have difficulties as a result of impaired or no speech and who use Augmentative and Alternative communications (AAC).