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UOC course instructor to launch new platform for children with disabilities and speech impairment

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Photo: Charlein Gracia / unsplash.com

20/07/2020
Agustn Lpez
The platform is one of eight finalists at SpinUOC, the University's entrepreneurship programme

UOC course instructor working on speech therapy telepractice

Spain is home to more than four million people with a disability, 30% of which have complex communication-related needs. This leaves over a million people with developmental disabilities such as infantile cerebral palsy, Rett syndrome and autism spectrum disorder; because these involve atypical speech development, they require alternative communication systems. In light of this, the ALFASAAC project is hoping to create an online Spanish-language platform that offers training, guidance, counsel and research into augmentative and alternative communication and literacy building for children with impaired speech. Led by Ruth Candela, a psychiatrist and course instructor at the UOC's Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences, the initiative has earned a spot as one of eight finalists at SpinUOC, the UOC's entrepreneurship programme. Driven by the Hubbik platform, this year's event is scheduled to take place on 1 October.

Spain has only begun to scratch the surface of augmentative and alternative communication, which refers to the use of any communicative modality other than speech to express one's thoughts, needs, wants and ideas. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that users do not use their own voice, instead relying on other methods such as pictographic systems, specialized software and gaze reading devices. Ruth Candela, who has a master's degree in Neuropsychology under her belt and is currently working towards her university master's degree in Learning Difficulties and Language Disorders, said: "For children with disabilities who rely on this type of communication, language acquisition and literacy require highly specialized scaffolding that needs support, and we want to be the ones by their side through this challenge." She went on to say: "Just like speech, alternative language is built on the bedrock of society, yet these children, because of the physical, motor, sensory and communicative barriers they face, have very few opportunities to develop it."

AlfaSAAC, an acronym standing for literacy and augmentative and alternative communication systems, aims to create a platform that allows professionals and families of children with disabilities to learn to communicate with them, while also affording these children the opportunities they need to learn how to read and write. Users will be able to join support groups and receive specialized training in assessing and implementing a range of teaching strategies and technologies. "Its online format will allow it to reach a large number of families and professionals, who will feel supported in their role as guides as they help people with speech impairment on the difficult path towards finding their voice," Ruth explained. As well as spreading the knowledge generated in universities abroad, AlfaSAAC will also push for more research to be carried out in this untrodden field of study in Spain.

The AlfaSAAC project is currently working on developing its website. Embarking on this journey with Ruth Candela are Ana Jacas, Ana Medina, Patricia Velasco and Beatriz Bellido, who together make up the driving force behind the platform. Also lending a collaborative hand is speech therapist and psychologist Begoa Llorns. The initiative is near and dear to these women's hearts, as all five are mothers to children with developmental disabilities who, among other hardships, are unable to speak. According to the women, the idea for AlfaSAAC gestated slowly and naturally as they hit different road blocks on their path to helping their sons and daughters, admitting that it is the type of platform that they would have liked to have had themselves when everything started. AlfaSAAC has received an award from Hyundai Motor Spain as part of its 'As big as you want to be' initiative to raise the profile of projects that help improve people's lives.

 

Speech therapy in times of COVID-19

The situation brought on by COVID-19 has forced healthcare professionals around the world to resort to online alternatives. Little is known in Spain about the scope of telepractice in speech therapy, a discipline encompassing the diagnosis, assessment, treatment and prevention of disorders that affect communication, language, speech, the voice, hearing and other oral functions like chewing and swallowing. Having detected this knowledge gap, the UOC's Cognition and Language Research Group (GRECIL) has kicked off a study to gauge speech therapists' use and perception of this intervention format and its development over the course of the pandemic. To gather data, the researchers are using July to conduct a survey that targets speech therapy specialists who are actively working in Spain. Participants in the survey do not need to have had previous experience in telecare.

In the words of the study's coordinator, Alfonso Igualada, professor and researcher at the Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences and director of the Joint Bachelor's Degree in Speech and Language Therapy (UVic-UCC, UOC), "Other countries, mainly the United States and Australia, are seeing more and more positive signs pointing to the effectiveness of telepractice in multiple areas of intervention and for a range of conditions, including aphasia, dysphagia, autism and specific language impairment; in Spain, however, knowledge on its use is lacking."

According to the researcher, "If we heed these signs and consider the benefit-cost ratio and decreased travel times of telepractice, this type of intervention seems like it would be an appealing permanent addition to any speech therapist's services portfolio, and for that to happen we need to know whether these professionals are willing to help usher in this change."

The study will gather data on the professional profile of speech and language therapy specialists, their perception of telecare and the development they have seen it undergo since the onset of the pandemic. Alfonso Igualada pointed out the following: "We're curious to learn about the state telepractice was in before the COVID-19 outbreak and whether the crisis sparked any changes; in other words, professionals' reactions to and future outlooks on this intervention modality."

The researchers also explained that the study will outline more effective intervention approaches and lay the groundwork for future research that can hone further in on professionals' perception and use of telepractice to find out, for instance, what teleintervention models are most efficient.

Those interested in taking part in the study should fill out this very brief participation form, following which they will receive a 20-to-35-minute questionnaire to complete. Thus far, over 200 people, 95% of which are women, have shown interest in taking part in the study.

 

Speech Therapy Telepractice: new course to be offered by UOC X

UOC X - Xtended Studies, the branch of the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya that covers training outside the scope of regular university activity, is in the process of preparing a training programme focused on teleintervention. Speech Therapy Telepractice is a short, one-credit specialization course designed to teach speech and language therapists how to carry out teleinterventions, starting from the very basics.

According to the course coordinator, Alfonso Igualada, "It will offer eminently practical training, introducing students to the synchronous (online, real-time connection between patient and speech therapist) and asynchronous (online intervention without real-time connection) intervention methodologies and strategies that will enable them to apply telepractice to their work in the field of speech therapy."

The course will begin by introducing students to the scientific evidence that justifies the use of telepractice in treating the disorders that are typically addressed in face-to-face speech therapy sessions. It will then look at the most effective technological tools for this type of practice. Finally, it will discuss how to design tele-speech therapy sessions with a consideration for cultural and linguistic variables.

 

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The UOC's research and innovation (R&I) are helping 21st-century global societies to overcome pressing challenges by studying the interactions between ICT and human activity, with a specific focus on e-learning and e-health. Over 400 researchers and 48 research groups work among the University's seven faculties and three research centres: the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3), the eLearn Center (eLC) and the eHealth Center (eHC).

The United Nations' 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and open knowledge serve as strategic pillars for the UOC's teaching, research and innovation. More information:research.uoc.edu.