Communication Devices for Individuals with Special Needs

Better Dialogue With Cognitive Or Speech Disabilities

Communication devices are specialized tools designed to support individuals with speech or cognitive disabilities in expressing themselves and interacting with others. These assistive devices can range from simple picture boards to sophisticated speech-generating devices like communication tablets with advanced features. For people who face challenges with spoken language or with traditional methods of communication, communication devices can be transformative. By offering alternative ways to understand each other and get the message across, these tools can transform daily routine and quality of life for people with cognitive or speech disabilities.


These devices and tools provide a speech-bypassing method for expressing wants and needs, opening up new avenues for self-expression, social interaction, and participation in various activities. People can use these devices, tools and related methods to achieve greater personal independence and engage with their communities.

Trusting Interpersonal Bridge Technologies & Techniques

There are many reasons that a person could have difficulty in communicating through speech, and these difficulties can limit the ability to understand language, and constrain the person’s ability to express themselves clearly in the written or spoken word, or simply stop them from speaking altogether.

Children and adults with a range of possible conditions and causes for communication barriers can benefit from the use of specialized communication or speech generating devices.

Some may feel reluctant to start using a communication device out of a fear that such a tool could reduce future independence. That’s not at all correct. It's important to clarify why these unfounded worries should never get in the way of aiding communication, forging connections, and building pathways that help people reach out to each other.

  1. Firstly, in many cases communication devices will act as temporary supports. For children with speech delays, or for adults recovering from injuries, communication devices can be life changing equipment that helps them through a time when traditional communication is limited. Just as a temporary hand rail might help someone walking in a construction zone, communication devices can provide a necessary alternative way for people to express themselves until their speech abilities improve. For short-term situations, the need for a communication device will likely diminish or disappear as language skills develop or return.
  2. Secondly, for adults or children whose speech and communication impairments or limitations are long-term or permanent, these devices are essential. Without them, communication would be far more challenging or effectively impossible. Some important conversations might never occur at all, leaving voices unheard and needs unexpressed. And that would be a far greater barrier to independence, and to happiness.

Communication is a basic human need, and we must understand that it is too important to ignore by thinking that it will just resolve itself. We can encourage ourselves to be brave and make the best use of the tools available to us.

What Are Special Needs?

“Special needs” is a broad term that has been used in the past to describe individuals who have a disability requiring additional support. In the context of cognitive disabilities, it could refer to people who experience challenges with learning, reasoning, problem-solving, or memory. Examples include conditions like Down syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorder, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Today, the term “special needs” has become rather outdated in conversations around disability. It can feel vague, because it doesn't provide specific details about the individual's challenges. What are the special needs that we mean, and why can’t we simply say what they are? An old-world sensibility, where disability was something to hush up or hide, doesn’t fit the more direct approach used in contemporary times. Most people nowadays will use specific words to describe exactly what needs should be addressed, even if they do so politely. The “special” in “special needs” might also transmit an unintentional negative message of “you’re different” that can cause feelings of inadequacy or isolation. However, people carry with them their own cultural associations and complex histories. We should not talk down to someone who does use this term: they may not know that it isn’t currently interpreted as kind.

Speaking With Dignity About Disability

What is the right way to refer to a disability? The answer isn’t entirely straightforward.

People-first language is preferred by many. This means shifting focus in our language use to indicate that the disability is one part of the person, not their defining characteristic. So, for example, someone who is in a wheelchair might choose to say they have a mobility disorder, or that they are a person with limited mobility.

The person-first approach is not universal.

Some people with disabilities actually prefer a disability-first word order, for the exact opposite reason: they do consider their disability an important part of their identity, and how they think of themselves. For example, a person with hearing loss might say they are a member of the Deaf community, or they might simply say, “I am a Deaf person”, with an intentionally capitalized letter D. They associate this term with feelings of pride and belonging. Similarly, people who are autistic often wish to be referred to as “an autistic person”, denoted by a gold or rainbow-hued eternity symbol (like a horizontal number 8) rather than the puzzle piece image, which they reject for its strong negative connotations.

As part of basic courtesy, we can and should try to use the disability terms that people prefer for themselves, if we know them. It is also true that people are all different, and one person's disability-first usage might offend another, and vice versa. With that being said, we can only do our best, and we may make mistakes. But we can try to give all the words we use an intention of respect, and hope that that is the message that gets across.

What Is Cognitive Disability?

While the term “cognitive disability” is broad, it can include a wide range of medical conditions that affect a person's mental functioning. Some examples include:

  • Dementia: A progressive decline in cognitive abilities, including Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia.
  • Intellectual disability: Developmental delay affecting intellectual and adaptive functioning.
  • Down syndrome: One of many genetic conditions that cause intellectual disability and distinctive physical and facial features.
  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD): A neurodevelopmental condition that may be characterized by social communication differences and highly focused interests, and in some, a strong sense of logic that does not always match the behavior of the people around them.
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): Difficulties with focus, sometimes including hyperactivity, daydreaming, low executive function, disorganization, and impulsivity.
  • Learning disabilities: Specific difficulties with reading, writing, or math skills.
  • Brain injury: Damage to the brain caused by trauma (TBI), stroke, or infection.
  • Mental illness: Conditions like schizophrenia and depression can impact cognition.
  • Congenital syndromes: Certain rare congenital disorders, meaning the person was born with the condition, can cause speech impairment or an inability to speak. 
  • Metabolic disorders: Certain metabolic disorders can affect brain function.
  • Fetal alcohol syndrome disorders: Developmental problems resulting from prenatal alcohol exposure.

The Continuum Of Intellectual Disability

Cognitive disabilities can vary significantly in their levels of impact. Underlying conditions and degree of impairment are contributing factors. Healthcare professionals often sort intellectual disability into three impact categories:

Mild Impact

This category includes approximately 85% of those who have intellectual disabilities. With milder impairments, individuals may experience forgetfulness, difficulty learning new things, or challenges with planning and organization. However, they may nevertheless achieve academically, live on their own, and in some cases, they are able to do very well in careers that focus on their strengths and abilities. Daily activities are usually manageable with some adaptations. They may need more guidance on major life decisions, and they might need reminders or added time or more detailed instructions to perform some tasks.

Moderate Impact

For those with moderate impairments, probably 10% of the overall intellectual disability group, they may have difficulty with communication, self-care, and in some cases, with independent living. They are likely to require regular and sometimes extensive support. For people with this level of intellectual disability, a group home may be a good solution, offering some independence, with the addition of more structure, and available help with self-care.

Significant Impact

Significant cognitive impairment, at a very low 3-5% of this group, impacts a person's life in multiple ways, making fundamental daily activities like dressing, bathing, and preparing meals difficult or impossible. And, communication may be minimal, when the person’s ability to understand and express their thoughts and needs are limited.

The use of the word “profound” or “profoundly” to describe a very significant level of cognitive or intellectual disability is no longer considered appropriate.

Some group intellectual disability levels instead by the amount of support they need: another logical system.

Disability Terminology & Communication Challenges

It should be noted that people with cognitive disabilities may have difficulty expressing their preferences regarding terminology about themselves and their own conditions. They may have trouble communicating their feelings or explaining why some words feel bad to them. Or they might not be aware of the tone or terms in which they are being mentioned. They might not understand what the words mean. This doesn't excuse using disrespectful terms either to or about someone with a cognitive disability.

Unfortunately, there's a general tendency to infantilize people with cognitive disabilities. This may show up as using overly simplistic language or “baby talk”, or treating them as less capable than they are. While it is true that their cognitive disabilities may prevent them from acting independently in some areas, or may cause them to miss meanings in conversation, people with cognitive disabilities deserve respect just as everyone does. And part of showing that respect is considering how we talk about these and all disabilities.

Whenever possible, try to use accurate and current terminology. Instead of “special needs person,” consider switching to terms like “person with a cognitive disability” or “individual with learning challenges.” These terms are more respectful and accurate, although terminology can vary depending on the specific disability that the person has.

Why Can’t We Just Say “Special Needs”?

It's important to recognize that the term “special needs” isn't inherently awful, and it isn't necessarily meant to be harmful. Families who have used it for a long time may feel comfortable and familiar with it. They may also resent an outsider telling them how to talk about their loved one. That’s not to say it’s ideal.

The term “special needs” emerged in the 1950s and 1960s. It gained popularity alongside the growing movement for inclusion of people with disabilities in education and society.

Previously, terms for cognitive disabilities were often far more negative. Some terms, which we won't repeat here because they are now considered highly offensive, were used in a now-discredited classification system for intellectual disability. Some terms historically referred to both physical and intellectual disabilities, but are now seen as extremely insensitive. Many such outdated terms carry negative connotations of weakness or lack of intelligence.

While “special needs” aimed to be a more positive term, it has fallen out of favor, in part because it unintentionally separates people with disabilities from the rest of society, and it doesn't specify the individual's specific needs.

Why do people still use this term? “Special needs” can serve as a kind of shortcut for communication, particularly in casual settings. If everyone involved understands that someone has a cognitive disability when the term “special needs” is used, it can be a way to quickly convey that information. This is why you might hear this term come up in a discussion. A parent or more likely a grandparent might say, “That's a great school for kids with special needs.”

Some parents identify with the term, calling themselves “a “Special Needs Mom” or “Special Needs Dad”, meaning that they have a child with a cognitive disability. For these caretaking parents, they may be using these titles as a way of expressing pride in both their child, who has a disability and who is also much loved, and in their own efforts to take care of their child in ways that they never expected. They may feel that they don’t want to use the medical name for their child’s condition because they don’t want to discuss it in detail with everyone they meet. “Special needs” is still widely understood, and it can cut short the inquiries of nosy strangers. It can also be a starting point for discussing the specific communication and care needs of a person with a cognitive disability. As a next step, however, it's often helpful to move towards more precise language.

Ultimately, the most important thing is to prioritize sensitivity and respect for all people involved. While “special needs” may not be the most precise term, focusing on correcting family members who use it can be unproductive. These families are likely doing their best to navigate a complex situation, and feeling lectured about terminology can create a communication barrier. Our goal should be to create a comfortable and open dialogue where families feel empowered to discuss their loved one's specific needs and explore the best ways to support them. By establishing a collaborative and understanding environment, we can work together to identify the most effective communication tools for the person with a cognitive disability.

Communication Devices: A Lifeline for Special Needs

an illustration of AAC tools with a heart rate line connecting them, depicting the importance of the communication devices.

Communication devices, also known as Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) tools, offer significant advantages for people with cognitive disabilities who may also have difficulty speaking. For the person with special needs, these devices can lessen frustration and feelings of isolation, and boost self-confidence. AAC devices provide a sense of independence and control by giving people a way to share their thoughts and feelings, even if they lack traditional spoken language skills.

For educators, caregivers, friends, and family members, these tools make interactions more meaningful, reduce misunderstandings, and open up clear channels of communication. By using pictures, symbols, or even synthesized speech, these devices clearly convey the message. This leads to stronger relationships and improved care.

Tools, Methods, & Assistive Devices for Special Needs Communication

A wide variety of tools and assistive devices are available to support communication for people with speech, hearing, or cognitive disabilities and conditions. These conditions may be referred to in a number of ways, using general and specific medical terminologies, or more common-use terms.

Important Note

While “special needs” is sometimes used as a catch-all term, we will add that “cognitive disabilities” remains the preferred usage. As a category, “special needs” encompasses a wide range of conditions, but it most often refers to cognitive limitations. Less frequently, it might refer to speech or hearing impairments. We use this term here to assist those who are familiar with that terminology, and with only respectful intentions.

Communication devices for special needs include low-tech options, such as picture boards, communication books, symbol systems, and manual signs, and an array of mid-tech and high-tech solutions, from simple speech-generating devices with pre-recorded messages to advanced communication tablets with customizable features. These devices allow users to select symbols or type messages that are then voiced by the device itself. Some can also access educational materials and perform additional functions.

Augmentative & Alternative Communication (AAC)

AAC, or Augmentative & Alternative Communication, is the formal term for any communication tool or method used to supplement or replace spoken language. This includes assistive communication devices at every level of technology, and non-electronic communication tools like picture boards and gesture-based systems.

Communication devices and Speech Generating Devices (SGDs) are not meant to replace spoken language development in cases where speech improvement is possible. Rather, they aid in and support communication when speech is limited. AAC devices can actually support the development of spoken language skills for those who are learning to communicate via speech.

Speech-Generating Devices (SGDs)

Speech-generating devices (SGDs) are a type of AAC device that uses digitized speech or synthesized voices to communicate. These devices generate spoken language through text or symbols entered by the user. They can vary from simple and compact button-activated devices with pre-recorded messages to communication tablets with advanced features and complex systems that use predictive text and sophisticated software. In general, users can select symbols or type messages on the device screen, and the SGD will then vocalize the chosen words or phrases. Advanced SGD features and options may offer access to educational materials, appliance control in the home environment, and internet connectivity.

Picture Exchange Communication Systems (PECS)

(PECS) are another form of AAC that works with pictures and symbols instead of spoken language. PECS is a structured system that typically starts with a few highly motivating symbols that the user exchanges to request desired items or activities. Over time, the system expands to include more complex symbols and concepts.

By exchanging images to represent objects, actions, or concepts, Picture Exchange Communication Systems can help people convey their needs and thoughts, making them a valuable tool for non-verbal individuals, especially those who may have difficulty with spoken language or traditional AAC devices.

This system is often used with children with cognitive disabilities, providing a visual method to communicate when verbal language is not an option. PECS are structured in phases, beginning with simple exchanges and advancing to more complex sentence structures, facilitating gradual development in communication.

Online Communication Tools: Accessibility Is A Must

In today's digital world, online communication tools must be made fully accessible to people with disabilities. For people who use communication tablet to interact with others, for example, they must be able to use important websites, online applications, digital interfaces or social media platforms; an inability to access any of these is a very serious barrier for them. Screen reader compatibility, text scaling, and high contrast modes are among the other accessibility features that are absolutely essential for people with disabilities to navigate online content. Without accessibility features, many users with disabilities would face significant challenges in accessing information, expressing themselves, or engaging in social interactions online. For individuals with cognitive disabilities or speech impairments as well as other disabilities, these tools provide necessary support for effective communication and interaction. And, we must remember that many people have more than one disability. So, someone with a cognitive disability could also have a hearing or visual disability or both, and all of those disabilities imply different needs that must be served simultaneously in order for this individual to have fair and equal digital and online access to the world. 

Accessibly Integrating Web-Based Interfaces & AAC Communication Devices

an illustration of a person using an AAC tool which is connected to a computer.

Web-based interfaces must integrate seamlessly with communication devices that support accessibility features to be truly effective. This integration includes compatibility with screen readers, as well as affording compatible options for text scaling and high contrast modes. Screen readers convert text to speech, assisting visually impaired users. Text scaling allows users to adjust font sizes for better readability, while high contrast modes improve visibility for those with visual impairments. This integration is essential for end users with various disabilities to access and interact with online content without difficulty. Users who rely on assistive technologies need them to work in tandem with web interfaces and assistive devices such as AAC communication devices, so they can successfully navigate and use the internet, making digital communication and information access possible for all.

Recent Tech Advances In Assistive Communication Devices For Special Needs

The field of assistive technology is constantly evolving, with new advancements emerging to improve communication for people with disabilities. Here are some recent innovations making a positive impact:

  1. AI-Driven Predictive Text
    Modern communication devices now incorporate artificial intelligence to predict words and phrases as users type. By suggesting the most likely words based on context, this technology speeds up communication, reducing the time and effort needed to construct sentences, and significantly improving typing speed and accuracy for people with limited motor skills or cognitive challenges.
  2. Customizable Communication Boards
    Communication boards are a mainstay of AAC therapy, but new technology allows for greater personalization. Software programs now allow users and therapists to create personalized communication boards with options to add specific symbols, pictures, and text, and even pre-recorded messages, to directly address the individual's needs and interests. This customization allows for more effective and user-friendly communication experiences.
  3. Speech Recognition Software
    Advanced speech recognition software has been integrated into communication devices, helping people with speech impairments communicate more efficiently. These systems can understand and transcribe speech patterns, making it easier for users to convey their messages accurately.
  4. Eye-Gaze Technology
    Eye-gaze technology tracks a user's eye movements and translates them into selections or commands on a communication device. This offers a hands-free option for people with limited mobility and can be a valuable tool for individuals who struggle with traditional switch-based communication methods.

How Modern Devices Integrate Latest Technologies

Modern assistive devices have integrated recent technologies to improve connectivity and functionality. Some examples include:

Communication Tablet for Special Needs

Technology Integrated
AI-Driven Predictive Text

Functions & User Benefits
Predicts and suggests words/phrases for faster communication.

These advancements demonstrate how modern technology continues to evolve, making communication more accessible and efficient for individuals with disabilities.

Customization: The Key to Effective Communication

Customizable communication devices are a cornerstone of AAC therapy. These devices can be adapted to meet the specific needs and abilities of each user, making communication more efficient and effective.

Each person’s communication needs and disability requirements can vary significantly, so a one-size-fits-all approach can often be inadequate. By fitting the device more specifically to the user, it becomes a more powerful tool.

Benefits of Customizable AAC Devices

Here's why customization is such an important feature:

  • Playing to Strengths, Responding to Challenges
    Every person with a disability has unique strengths and challenges. Customization allows therapists and caregivers to create communication tools that directly address the user's specific needs in terms of language skills, cognitive abilities, and physical limitations.
  • Motivation & Engagement
    When a communication device reflects a user's interests and preferences, it can increase motivation and engagement. For example, a child who loves animals might have a communication board with pictures of their favorite pets.
  • Progression & Development
    Communication needs can change over time. Customizable devices allow therapists and caregivers to adjust the features and complexity of the communication system as the user's skills develop.
  • Accessibility
    When multiple people use the same device, it’s important to be able to customize so that a single device can accommodate different physical and cognitive abilities, adjusting options such as text size, voice output, and input methods.

Best Practices for Configuring Communication Devices

When configuring communication devices, it's important to consider the individual's preferred method of communication and interaction. Here are eight best practices to follow:

  1. Initial Assessment
    Conduct a thorough assessment of the user's communication needs, abilities, and preferences. This may involve input from speech therapists, caregivers, and the user themselves. This assessment will guide decisions about the appropriate device features and configuration.
  2. Choosing a Device
    For users with limited motor skills, choose a device with large, easy-to-access buttons or integrate switch control options. Explore eye-gaze technology if appropriate.
  3. Configure & Customize
    Some users may prefer picture symbols, while others may benefit from written words or a combination of both. The device should be configured to align with the user's preferred communication style. Include pictures, icons, and even pre-recorded messages that reflect the user's interests and personality. This personalization can make communication more engaging and motivating.
  4. User Training
    Provide comprehensive training for the user and their support network. Familiarize them with the device’s features and functionalities to ensure effective use.
  5. Start Simple, Build Complexity
    Begin with a limited number of symbols or choices on the communication board and gradually add more complexity as the user's skills progress.
  6. Custom Layouts
    Set custom layouts that prioritize frequently used words and phrases, making them easily accessible. Arrange symbols and text in a logical and intuitive manner.
  7. Feedback Mechanism
    Establish a feedback mechanism to gather user input on the device’s performance. Make necessary adjustments based on this feedback to improve user satisfaction and communication efficiency.
  8. Regular Updates
    Continuously update the device's content to reflect changes in the user's environment, interests, and communication needs. This keeps the device relevant and useful.

By following these best practices, communication devices can be configured and optimized to maximize their effectiveness and better serve the unique needs of each individual, producing more meaningful interactions.

Overcoming Barriers to AAC & Communication Device Access

Despite the clear benefits, several factors can commonly create barriers to accessing and using communication devices. The initial cost of these devices can be significant, meaning many families and individuals can’t get them. Ongoing maintenance or software updates may add additional expense. Furthermore, some families and caregivers may lack sufficient technological skills or training to feel confident using and programming the devices effectively. Additionally, limited availability and awareness of these tools can further hinder access.

There are strategies to overcome these challenges. Funding options such as government grants, insurance coverage, and nonprofit organizations can help alleviate financial burdens. Financial assistance programs from these sources or from insurance coverage can help offset the cost of communication devices. Many manufacturers offer training programs and online resources to help users and caregivers learn to operate and customize their devices. Additionally, speech-language pathologists and therapists can provide individualized training and support. Community support networks, including local disability organizations and online forums, as well as local or national advocacy groups can also be valuable sources of information and support, connecting families with resources and creating a network of encouragement and shared experience. Through these combined efforts, individuals with cognitive disabilities can better access and benefit from communication devices.

Caring Roles For Communication Needs With AAC Devices

Caregivers and therapists have a critical place in the process of facilitating effective communication through assistive communication devices. These professionals can provide individualized assessment and guidance based on training and experience to help determine the most appropriate device and configuration for each user. They can also offer training and support to help users and caregivers learn to operate and program the devices effectively, making sure that both the user and their support network are comfortable with the technology. Therapists can develop communication strategies specific to the user's needs and goals, integrating the assistive device into daily routines and activities. Through ongoing collaboration with caregivers, therapists can monitor progress and adjust the communication system as the user's skills develop. Their involvement is key to maximizing the benefits of communication devices for individuals with cognitive and speech impairments.

Strengthening Connection With Communication Technology

Communication devices for special needs are powerful tools that can be transformative, dramatically improving quality of life for individuals with cognitive disabilities and speech limitations, and opening up connections with their families, teachers, friends, and caretakers. These devices, especially when customized to meet specific needs, can tremendously improve levels of independence and degrees of social interaction. Advanced technologies like AI-driven predictive text and customizable communication boards also make these devices more efficient and user-friendly.

Addressing barriers such as high cost and lack of training through funding options, educational programs, and community support is essential for wider access and utilization. With the dedicated support of caregivers and therapists, these special devices can be effectively integrated into the lives of those who need them, helping express more meaningful and more inclusive communication, boosting independence through communication, and expanding possibilities for participation in daily life. As technology continues to evolve, communication devices are likely to become even more sophisticated and user-friendly, offering greater opportunities for connection, learning, and self-expression for all users.


What are communication devices for special needs (AAC)?

Communication devices for special needs, also known as Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices, are tools that help people with cognitive disabilities and speech limitations express themselves and participate in communication. These devices can include low-tech picture boards, high-tech electronic speech-generating devices, and advanced communication tablets designed for individuals with special needs.

Top 5 Accessibility