UBC Reports | Vol.
50 | No. 2 | Feb.
UBC Project Makes Life Easier for Those Suffering from Aphasia
Team designs communication aids
By Michelle Cook
(with files from Gayle Mavor, Computer Science Dept.)
Anita Borg, founder of the Institute for Women in Technology
in Palo Alto, California, was passionate about using technology
to better people's lives. Those who knew her say she was a
brilliant engineer with a compelling vision and a way of presenting
it that would make people sit up and listen.
When Borg was diagnosed with advanced brain cancer in May
2000, her long-time friend Maria Klawe, UBC's former science
dean, says, "It felt like the sun had gone behind a huge cloud."
Borg survived the cancer for much longer than expected but,
by 2002, had developed aphasia, a condition that affects a
person's ability to process and use language while leaving
their mental faculties intact. It most often occurs after
a stroke but it can also result from a brain tumour or brain
But cancer and aphasia could not defeat Borg's vitality and
enthusiasm. She was determined to use her expertise in technology
to find ways to overcome her difficulties communicating. She
and Klawe began brainstorming. Their discussion laid the groundwork
for a remarkable initiative now underway at UBC called the
"Anita was having increasing difficulty with speech, reading
and writing," recalls Klawe, now Dean of Engineering at Princeton
University. "[But] after realizing that her ability to recognize
images was still completely intact, we decided to see if computing
technology could enhance her ability to function in a variety
Klawe shared the pair's initial ideas with Karyn Moffatt,
a UBC graduate student, and convinced her to take on the task
of designing a computer-based aid for people with aphasia
as her master's thesis project. Klawe also approached Joanna
McGrenere, an assistant professor of computer science at UBC
and a specialist in human-computer interaction, to work with
Moffatt on her project in addition to exploring other possibilities.
McGrenere remembers being slightly daunted by the scope of
"Human-computer interaction (HCI) is a relatively young field.
In HCI, where we're trying to design technology to work for
a broad range of users, and one group that hasn't received
much attention are people with disabilities, particularly
people with speech and language cognitive disabilities," explains
McGrenere. "The reason this group doesn't get the same coverage
in HCI is because it's difficult working with participants
who have difficulty speaking and articulating their needs.
It just makes the job of designing technologies for them that
much more challenging."
From the start, it was clear to McGrenere and Moffatt that,
if they were going to help Borg, they would need a multidisciplinary
team of experts. They brought in several other UBC computer
science students, along with psychology professor Peter Graf,
and Barbara Purves, a clinical professor at the UBC School
of Audiology and Speech Sciences with more than 30 years of
experience helping people with aphasia.
The group wanted to understand the specific effects the condition
had on Borg's ability to function. McGrenere, Moffatt and
Purves flew to San Francisco to meet Borg and began investigating
preliminary designs and potential applications.
Despite her failing health, Borg showed an enthusiasm for
the project that all three women remember fondly.
"Anita was really inspired to use her condition in a way
that could help other people, even knowing that she probably
wasn't going to see the benefits of most of this work," McGrenere
But Borg also had specific needs that she managed to vocalize
for the research team.
"Anita wanted to maintain an active schedule and she increasingly
had to rely on family members to help manage her schedule
and that's not what she wanted," says Moffatt. "She had very
real needs so it was easy to envision how the technology could
fit in -- how it could help."
Back in Vancouver, the team began working with existing technology
in the form of an IPAQ pocket PC running with the Windows
CE operating system. Their goal was to develop a device that
would help Borg and others with aphasia maintain their independence
in carrying out small daily life tasks.
Purves estimates that there are approximately 100,000 Canadians
with aphasia -- about the same number as suffer from Parkinson's
disease. She says the biggest frustration for those affected
is the impairment of their ability to communicate with words
and writing and to some extent, with gesture and drawing,
and with it the impairment of their ability to communicate
who they are and what they are feeling.
"Aphasia affects people in different ways but the thing that
is common is that they're not unable to think, they just can't
get their thoughts out, and they also have difficulty taking
information in," Purves explains. This makes simple activities
like jotting down a doctor's appointment or remembering where
to meet a friend for dinner very difficult.
With help from other team members, Moffatt and McGrenere
have developed a prototype for a daily planner program that
runs on a hand-held computer (much like a Palm Pilot). It
is designed so that people who have lost their ability to
recognize words or write them down can record meetings and
appointments using a combination of images and sounds and
One of the team's big challenges has been to understand if
people with aphasia will be able to use the planner they've
designed. Through the BC Aphasia Centre and local stroke clubs
in Vancouver, as well as the Life Enhancement Aphasia Program
in Victoria, they have enlisted the help of a group of people
living with the condition to assess the prototype and incorporate
their ideas on how to improve it. Moffatt says the support
and enthusiasm from the local aphasia community has been overwhelming.
Sadly, Anita Borg passed away on April 6, 2003 from brain
cancer at the age of 54. The institute she founded has since
been renamed the Anita Borg Institute for Women in Technology.
But the UBC Aphasia Project is really just getting started.
While Moffatt's master's thesis -- the genesis of the project
-- is almost complete, there is still much work to be done
on the prototype. There are also several other spin-off projects
and case studies in progress. The team has recruited help
from other collaborators, including Jeff Riley, an expert
in assistive technology at Vancouver's G.F. Strong Rehab Centre,
and they plan to continue working with B.C.'s aphasia community
on new prototype technologies.
McGrenere thinks the project could continue for up to 10
"We're definitely in the foothills," she says. "It's a matter
of trying to uncover what the best platforms are for this
kind of work. [There are] various PDAs, cell phones that can
send images back and forth, tablets and a fair amount of mobile
What is clear is that Borg's vision of technology's potential
to help people lives on in an energetic, imaginative group
of researchers who were motivated by a remarkable woman.
Klawe says her friend would be thrilled at what the UBC aphasia
team has accomplished in its first year.
"Her family members and doctor told me that the project brought
her more joy than anything else in the last few months of