Guest blogger and SLP Janice Dittelman offers insights and start-up advice for a unique modern pen-pal program that connects people with aphasia to students while learning to use technology.

So much of today’s communication happens outside of a traditional face-to-face conversation. Many people with aphasia have difficulty engaging in telephone conversations because they are missing one very important component: visual cues. Advances in technology have proven to be very helpful. Email, video calling, and text messaging are now standard ways of communicating and offer advantages over traditional phone calls for people with aphasia.

Regardless of the distance between people, video calling offers the advantages of face-to-face communication when it’s not possible to be in the same room. People with aphasia can read facial expressions, use gestures, and reference communication aids not visible over the phone. Further, email provides written communication that can be processed and responded to off-line, providing those with aphasia the extra time they may need to compose their message.

We recognize the vital role of these methods of communication at the Adler Aphasia Center in Maywood, New Jersey. We use our unique ePal program to connect members with aphasia to speech-language pathology students from across the country via video chatting and emailing.

epals: Aphasia & Technology

An Adler Aphasia Center member talking to a student on a video call in the ePals program

The response from both our members and students has been extremely positive. One of our members who participated in our video chat program said, “It was great talking to the students. It made me so happy, and I felt special to be able to connect with other people.”

ePal Technical Needs

To start an ePal program, you’ll need some basic equipment. For video chatting you need:

  • a computer with a video camera and a microphone or a smart tablet
  • a WiFi/Internet connection

As for software, most of our video chatting sessions are conducted using Skype. We may also use FaceTime if both parties are using an Apple device such as an iPad.

For emailing you need:

  • a computer or smart tablet
  • an active email address/account
  • a WiFi/Internet connection

Identifying ePal Partners

Recognizing that not everyone is interested in using technology, we first identify members at our center who have the desire to use technology to stay connected to the outside world and are interested in meeting and talking with new people. We have also established relationships with university communication disorder programs looking to connect students with additional opportunities to interact with people with aphasia.

Student Training

We like to touch base with the students prior to their first interaction with our members to orient them to the program and provide some pointers. Pointers include a brief overview of communication tips, as well as suggested topics such as:

  • family
  • hobbies
  • current events
  • sports
  • entertainment
  • music

Students often ask if it is appropriate to inquire about how the member developed aphasia. My answer is that is depends on their partner. Some people with aphasia are comfortable sharing their stories, while others may not feel comfortable or may get very emotional trying to describe their experience.

Video Chatting

We select a specific day and time that both the member and student are available to chat. We run on a semester schedule, so we establish a set time throughout the semester when several members rotate through our video chat program. We identify one or two students who are also available at that time throughout the semester. The actual video chat session lasts about 20 minutes per week.

Every two or three weeks, we rotate a new member in to chat with a student at the same day and time. We have found that this is plenty of time for each party to get to know one another, and we can extend the time if we find that one particular member and student have more to discuss.

Emailing

For our email program, we try to pair one student to one aphasia center member per semester. Our members participate in a weekly computer lab hour, so they can use this time to write to their ePal. While in the computer lab, a volunteer is available to assist them when needed. We encourage the member and student to attach a photo of themselves to the first email so they can put a face to the name. The member and student then send weekly emails to one another over the course of the semester.

Outcome of ePals

We have had great success with our ePal program. Supported video chatting and email have allowed our members to connect socially with others. Further, our members are not stopping with their ePals! After successfully emailing his ePal for a semester, one of our members now emails other members from the center and his family, sharing links to recipes and photos he has taken with his iPad.

Our ePal program helps us achieve our ultimate goal: allowing people with aphasia to connect with others. The program also teaches our members how to use and feel comfortable with technology, and it helps them realize that technology can be used as a mode of communicating with and staying connected to the outside world. After all, isn’t that one reason why technology has become so powerful in our society? People with and without aphasia are getting hooked on technology and are more connected than ever.

Janice Dittleman, SLP

Guest Blogger Bio

Janice Dittelman, MS, CCC-SLP is a speech-language pathologist at the Adler Aphasia Center. She is the Technology Coach for the center, teaching members to use mobile devices to assist them with daily living and functional communication skills. She also implements individual treatment approaches while incorporating technology. Her clinical experiences include inpatient acute care and outpatient rehabilitation. She is a member of ASHA and has been published in Seminars in Speech and Language. She can be reached at jdittelman@adleraphasiacenter.org.