Valuing the Child
: A Person-centred Framework for Assistive Technologists Within a Special Education Setting

  • Christopher Stephen Norrie

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


We live in an era with decades of equality and diversity legislation in effect around the world. Bodies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) are focused upon promoting sustainable and accessible development for all. In recent years, society has largely embraced the social model of disability, which characterises disability as a failure by society to accommodate diversity. Yet people with complex communication needs (CCN) - a growing demographic, thanks in part to welcome advances in medicine - typically struggle to achieve independence, and to utilise expressive language effectively. For children and young people just embarking upon this journey, there are the added barriers of vocabulary acquisition in an environment where their needs are not always understood or acted upon, and the negotiation of social and strategic competencies to overcome. Sadly, up to 90 per cent of those with congenital CCN fail to acquire functional literacy. This deficit has grave implications for their capacity to engage with key assets of modern society, including health services, education and employment. Many face a lifetime of passive dependency.

High tech Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) solutions - assistive technologies designed to support people with little or absence of functional speech - may be able to help. However, uptake of these devices in special education (SE) institutions remains poor, and their use is often abandoned due to usability issues, the demands of gaining operational competencies, and other challenges such as matching physical access methods to emerging communicators’ needs. Such obstacles demand a nuanced, bespoke approach to service provision and support, requiring significant expertise to organise and oversee effectively.

This research introduces a responsive, tech-savvy support infrastructure that will foster earlier, more purposeful interventions; and introduce a novel, evidence-based approach to the pedagogical support of young emerging communicators in SE. It promulgates and defines, via three qualitative studies, a practitioner new to the SE field: the Assistive Technologist (ATist) - a trained professional with a focus upon innovating and supporting advanced technology solutions for aided communicators. Over the course of this project, the researcher performed the role of the ATist, embedded in the classroom, and collaborating using hybrid ethnographic/action research methodologies with educators, other adult stakeholders in the community, and the pupils themselves to extend the mediated learning experience - a learner-centred intervention-based teaching method. In this way, common user-centred design principles of joint interaction were actuated in a population - children with CCN - traditionally challenging to access and engage.

The results provide compelling indicators of the ATist role’s potential to act as a catalyst fomenting enhanced levels of holistic support, boosting pedagogical outcomes, and the adoption of high tech AAC solutions. It is argued that the large scale deployment of such a practitioner in the field could therefore be transformative. A key output from this work is a novel framework informed by these results, and designed to encourage and promote the instatement of ATists in SE institutions throughout the world.
Date of Award2021
Original languageEnglish
SponsorsEngineering and Physical Sciences Research Council
SupervisorAnnalu Waller (Supervisor) & Beth Hannah (Supervisor)


  • Augmentative and Alternative Communication
  • Assistive technology
  • Human Computer Interaction
  • User centred design

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