Mapping Communicative Activity: A CHAT Approach to Design of Pseudo- Intelligent Mediators for Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC)

Julie Hengst, Maeve McCartin, Hillary Valentino, Suma Devanga, Martha Sherrill

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The development of AAC technologies is of critical importance to the many people who are unable to speak intelligibly (or at all) due to a communication disorder, and to their many everyday interlocutors. Advances in digital technologies have revolutionized AAC, leading to devices that can “speak for” such individuals as aptly as it is illustrated in the case of the world famous physicist, Stephen Hawking. However, given their dependence on prefabricated language (and constant management by teams of people), current AAC devices are very limited in their ability to mediate everyday interactions. We argue here that the limits of AAC are firstly theoretical — grounded in prosthetic models that imagine AAC devices as replacements for damaged body parts and in transmission models of language production as communication. In contrast, our multidisciplinary team aims to design pseudo-intelligent mediators (PIMs) of communication by blending strengths of human mediators with features of current AAC technologies. To inform the design process, we report here our initial situated studies focusing on the distributed nature of everyday communicative activities conducted with potential AAC/PIM users. Our analysis focuses on the discursive alignments of these participants and their interlocutors, attending especially to the various ways their personal aides function as human mediators. Specifically, we focus on mapping the communicative activity around each of these differently-abled individuals (the majority of whom have cerebral palsy) as they navigated a university campus. We profile the everyday interactional patterns within functional systems and across settings, and present close discourse analysis of one interaction to highlight the diverse roles personal aides adopted in mediating communication. Finally, we argue that attending to differently “abled” bodies as they move through everyday communicative environments pushes CHAT to more fully theorize physicality, individual mobilities, and the roles of bodies in the laminated assemblage of functional systems.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)05-38
Number of pages34
JournalOutlines. Critical Practice Studies
Issue number1
StatePublished - Aug 1 2016


  • Disability
  • Communication disorders
  • Participatory design
  • Augmentative and alt ernative communication (AAC)
  • Cultural - historical activity theory (CHAT)
  • Functional systems
  • Discourse analysis


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