New RERC on AAC Funded by NIDILRR

There are more than 5 million Americans with complex communication needs who cannot rely on speech and/or writing to communicate, including children and adults with developmental, acquired, and degenerative disabilities. Without functional communication, they are severely restricted in all aspects of life – education, employment, healthcare, and community living.

To address this unmet need, the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR) has awarded a $4.6 million, five-year grant to Penn State University for the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Augmentative and Alternative Communication (The RERC on AAC). The new center will conduct research, develop new technology, and provide training and dissemination to improve communication outcomes for children and adults with complex communication needs. As Dr. Janice Light (The Hintz Family Endowed Chair at Penn State, and the Principal Investigator of the RERC on AAC) explained: “Our vision is to ensure that all individuals, including those with the most severe disabilities, have access to effective augmentative and alternative communication strategies, techniques, and interventions so they can realize their basic human right of communication”.

Dr. Janice Light

Dr. Janice Light (Penn State University) is the Principal Investigator for the new RERC on AAC
(photo credits)

The newly funded RERC on AAC (2020-25) will bring together an outstanding team, including Dr. Janice Light and Dr. David McNaughton (Penn State University, University Park, PA), Dr. Susan Fager (Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital, Lincoln, NE), and Dr. Heidi Koester (Koester Performance Research, Ann Arbor, MI).

Dr. Susan Fager (Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital) will investigate new AAC technologies (photo credits)

The RERC on AAC will improve education, employment, healthcare, and community living outcomes for individuals who require augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) through research, development, training, and dissemination activities.

Research Project Goals

  • to increase participation in employment and community living for individuals with developmental disabilities and complex communication needs (e.g., autism spectrum disorders, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, intellectual and developmental disabilities);
  • To improve literacy outcomes for individuals with complex communication needs;
  • To improve AAC user interface displays to reduce learning demands and improve communication performance.

Technology Development Project Goals

  • To improve service delivery in alternative access for individuals with severe motor impairments;
  • To provide more effective and efficient access to AAC technology for individuals with severe motor impairments through integrated use of electromyography and brain-computer interface;
  • Todevelop and evaluate new AAC technology that empowers individuals who use AAC with the means to train unfamiliar partners.

Training and Dissemination Projects

  • Mentored research and lab experiences
  • Rehabilitation engineering student capstone experiences
  • AAC doctoral student think tanks
  • AAC Learning Center to provide online educational resources
  • State of the Science in AAC conference
  • Broad-based dissemination

Dr. David McNaughton (Penn State University) with Dr. Tracy Rackensperger (University of Georgia) at the 2018 RERC on AAC State of the Science conference

For additional information please contact Dr. David McNaughton at

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