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SymbolChat: A flexible picture-based communication platform for users with intellectual disabilities

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)374-386
Number of pages13
JournalInteracting with Computers
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2012
Publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed


Persons with intellectual disabilities benefit from participating in the modern information society, especially the World Wide Web, social media and Internet-mediated communication services. Although several computer-based prototypes and commercial systems have been introduced for accessible in-person communication, currently few applications and services exist to support synchronous remote communication for this user group. We introduce SymbolChat, a software platform that supports the creation of multimodal communication applications utilizing picture-based instant messaging. End users and their support personnel can customize the input and output features of the application based on their individual needs and abilities. The interaction is based on touchscreen input and speech output using speech synthesis technology. The SymbolChat platform was developed together with the prospective end users and practitioners in the field of special needs care. We evaluated the prototype application in a field study with nine users with varying degrees of intellectual and other disabilities. The results clearly indicate that the participants were able to express themselves in spontaneous communication using a large-scale picture-based vocabulary (around 2000 symbols) even without prior training in the use of symbols. This finding was supported in the constructive feedback gathered from professionals working in the area. We also successfully applied methodology from other settings, such as child-computer interaction to evaluate interaction in this challenging context. Overall, the results show that social inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities can be improved with customizable communication tools. The implemented communication platform forms a solid basis for further improvements and new communication services. In addition, we found that users with motor impairments would greatly benefit from alternative input and output methods for symbol browsing and selection.

ASJC Scopus subject areas


  • Augmentative and alternative communication, Instant messaging, Picture-based communication, User-centered design