Speech is a complex process requiring intellectual and physical capabilities. At times, this process can become compromised making the verbalization of thoughts difficult, therefore other methods of communication may be required. Alternative and augmentative forms of communication (often known as AAC) can help individuals with a wide range of speech and language such as Autism, Downs' Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy and Aphasia. Examples of alternative means of communication include the use of symbols to convey a message often with synthesized text to speech. This has proven to be an effective alternative and can allow people to hold conversations, participate (Light & McNaughton, 2012) and enhance their quality of life (Hill, 2012). However, there have been some challenges in achieving this in the Arab region due to the lack of Arabic symbol inventories and reliance on Westernized symbols (Hock & Lafi, 2011), and as a result, uptake and the positive outcomes of using AAC have been limited. The Arabic symbol dictionary research team has endeavored to create a new freely available resource that will be the first of its kind and is focused on creating culturally, environmentally, religiously and linguistically appropriate symbols for the Arab AAC community. Through engagement with AAC users, teachers, therapists and parents using a participatory approach, the team have found that current Westernized symbols are not appropriate for the region's culture and lifestyle. This paper aims to discuss what factors the team has taken into account to ensure the symbols are appropriate for the Arabic AAC population. Considerations to be discussed include; cultural adaptations, religious sensitivities, linguistic factors and suitable portrayal of the environment.


At the outset of the project an expert group of advisors advised against the creation of a brand new symbol set and suggested the development of symbols that could complement existing symbol sets. As the research team adopted a participatory approach to solve design and developmental processes, a self-selecting AAC forum of teachers, therapists and parents was introduced to a choice of freely available symbol sets to compare to those they already used. Their choice would form the basis for the symbol dictionary development. The choice having been made, it was then essential to develop a set of criteria in collaboration with the AAC forum that would inform the adaptations made to any symbols that were felt to be culturally inappropriate or lacking in linguistic correctness. Criteria used to review the symbols included; flipping symbols especially those with arrows to follow Arabic sentence orientation from right to left, adapting dress to be modest and in line with Qatari and the modern general Arab dress code, adding darker physical features to characters, changing symbols which contained affection and/or mixing with the opposite gender, reducing greenery in the environment, consideration of social hierarchy, including nanny/maid in symbols related to the family unit, the inclusion of religious holidays and customs, local landmarks and food. Based on these criteria, the graphic designer would adapt the symbols and post them to the team's closed Google+ group for internal review. Once the symbol was reviewed by 3 team members, the symbol was uploaded to the Arabic Symbol Dictionary Symbol Manger where the AAC forum would later vote on a batch of adapted symbols. Symbols accepted as culturally suitable were then uploaded to the ‘Tawasol’ website for download for free by the public. Comments were analyzed and adaptations were made accordingly to the symbols that were voted as culturally inappropriate by the AAC forum and were re-voted on with the next batch of symbols.


In the first round of voting where participants were asked to select their preferred symbol set, the ARASSAC symbol set was chosen. However only 3.4% of symbols were marked as ‘good’ due to the symbols being culturally sensitive. A number of symbols (‘batch 1’) were then adapted by the graphic designer and were voted on by 63 voters. The symbols' cultural acceptability increased to an average scoring of 4.14 out of 5 due to the cultural, religious, linguistic and environmental changes. 16.5% of comments were in relation to changes that needed to be made to the representation of culture (6.8%), religion (7.2%), language (2.4%) and environment (0.1%). A much smaller group of 21 voters voted on the second batch of newly developed symbols and the symbols' average cultural acceptability rating was 4.03 out of 5. 16.8% of comments were in relation to changes that needed to be made to the representation of culture (14%), religion (1.4%), language (1.4%) and environment (0%). The main comments regarding culture included ensuring women were wearing a black Abaya and Shayla and if they were in colored clothing that they did not “look like a maid”. There were mixed comments about whether children should be represented in the symbols as wearing traditional Qatari dress or non-traditional dress. Physical features also were commonly commented on with requests for darker skin tones and facial hair for older male Figs. (e.g. father). Concerns were also raised about some hand gestures used in the symbols that did not agree with the Qatari culture (e.g. hand over chest to indicate ‘thank you’ is not used in Qatari culture). Symbols with Qatari foods such as those with rice and meat/chicken needed to have whole joints of lamb/chicken on the rice rather than small pieces. In terms of religious feedback this included ensuring women's hair was covered, symbols related to eating showed the character eating with the right hand, the five daily prayers showed the correct position for the sun and that women's feet were covered during prayer. Linguistic feedback suggested that symbols for pronouns needed to include the dual form as well as including male and female versions of each symbol, both features of the Arabic language. Environmental feedback included reducing greenery.


The results showed a steady improvement in voters' rating of the cultural appropriateness of the symbols. The majority of comments were related to the representation of attire in the symbols and this has been discussed in detail internally within the team and also with participants. Many therapists and teachers requested that characters should be dressed in traditional Qatari dress and many others suggested this would only serve the needs of the Arabic Gulf AAC users and would not appeal to the general Arab population. Through conducting a survey the team came to the conclusion that it was best to create symbols with general Arab clothing and traditional Qatari dress to serve the needs of the widest Arabic AAC population. The differences in results between voting session two and three could be attributed to a number of factors. In the third session, voters were strongly encouraged to provide detailed comments about the suitability of the symbols and this may have caused them to be more critical in their feedback. Furthermore, the second round of voting was primarily on symbols of nouns where their representation tended to be universally accepted compared to those voted on in the third round of voting, which were predominantly actions, interactions and concepts that were less concrete and difficult to convey. It is also possible that voters were more confident with the voting process in the third round of voting and this affected the way they voted, giving them the confidence to be open with their opinions.


The contribution of the AAC forum and AAC users to this project has yielded ample feedback that is essential to making the Arabic Symbol Dictionary relevant and useful. The Arabic Symbol Dictionary team has made an active effort to maintain open communication lines with participants to guarantee, where possible, that the symbols are culturally, religiously, linguistically and environmentally appropriate. It is for this reason, and the lack of freely available culturally appropriate symbols, that participants have requested access to these symbols much earlier than their official release date. Participants also regularly contact the team with lists of words which they require adapted symbols for, that do not exist in available symbols sets or are inappropriate for the Qatari setting. Any symbols that have been designed and voted on have been added to the Tawasol website on a share alike creative commons license (CC BY-SA 4.0 license)[1] so they can be used by the community and companies providing communication devices. The team is also concurrently seeking feedback from other GCC and Arabic speaking countries to ensure this resource is utilized and made available to a widespread audience. With the majority of Arab countries having between 4–5% of disabilities attributed to speech impairments and numerous Arab countries showing between 13 and 15% of all disabilities related to communication, (Disability in the Arab Region, 2014) the need for such a resource is becoming increasingly apparent.


Hill, K. (2010). Advances in augmentative and alternative communication as quality-of-life technology. Physical medicine and rehabilitation clinics of North America, 21(1), 43–58.

Hock, B. S. & Lafi, S., M. (2011). Assistive Communication Technologies for Augmentative Communication in Arab Countries: Research Issues. UNITAR e-Journal, 7(1), 57–66.

Light, J., & McNaughton, D. (2012). Supporting the communication, language, and literacy development of children with complex communication needs: State of the science and future research priorities. Assistive Technology, 24(1), 34–44.

Economic and Social Commission of Western Asia (ESCWA) League of Arab States, (2014). DISABILITY IN THE ARAB REGION AN OVERVIEW. Retrieved from http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/


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