Posted by: ayrshirehealth | January 7, 2015

Chatting with Professor Stephen Hawking by @lindamarionpage

Making time for a chat with Professor Stephen Hawking

As one of the great thinkers of our time, Professor Hawking, theoretical physicist, researcher and author has communicated his passion for his work widely through scientific publications, best selling books and also by talking widely about his work. Hawkins - SimpsonsHis ‘voice’ is instantly recognizable to millions through his work on television programmes bringing science into our homes, and of course he also featured in an episode of The Simpsons!

Professor Hawking, who has Motor Neurone Disease (MND), presents his views to us using his voice output communication aid. Professor Hawking was on television recently talking about artificial intelligence and his new communication system. In this interview, he discussed the new software that he is using which ‘learns how the professor thinks and suggests the words he might want to use next’.

TIME is the key

Time bundleThis sounds magical but as anyone who uses any method of augmentative or alternative communication (AAC) knows, TIME is the key to their interaction.

I have often been asked about Professor Hawking –

‘how does he do it?’        ‘Is it thought waves?’

No, definitely not thought waves.

It is a process of scanning using a single switch with specialist software – each switch activation selects a letter, function key, predicated word or pre-stored phrase – thus allowing him to build up messages to be spoken or to write documents . Professor Hawking has only very minimal movement and accesses a switch that is attached to his glasses using a movement of a muscle just below his eye.

When we see him ‘speak’ on television, his communication looks instantaneous – but that is not what it is like in real life for the professor, or for anyone who uses AAC. In these interviews, Professor Hawking has spent a huge amount of time preparing what he is going to say ready for filming. We don’t see the time and effort he has had to put in, hence the fact that it looks instantaneous.

Lost voice guy

‘Lost voice guy’ who uses an iPad as a voice output device in his stand up comedy act, is also someone who uses AAC who has ‘ found fame’! The use of voice output is not just an ‘act’ for Lost voice guy – it is real life. Comic timing is crucial in his presentation, and he is a highly skilled communicator in doing this and ‘controlling’ his audience via voice output. But again, for Lee, aka ‘Lost voice guy’   comic asides that are not pre-scripted take extra time to deliver, even with the benefits of pre-stored phrases and word prediction on his iPad.

Communication partner

Advancing technology has improved the AAC solutions that we can provide to children and adults with communication difficulties, however technology is not the whole story for someone who uses AAC. The role of the communication partner is crucial, which is why seeing Professor Hawking on television can be misleading.

Lightwriter commsJust recently I had a conversation with Barry, a gentleman who has used a Lightwriter voice output communication aid for many years. We were discussing ‘what makes a good conversation for him’.

This was something he was keen to explore in depth in order to pass on ‘tips’ on how to be a good conversation partner both to people he meets up with and in presentations he gives on his experiences as someone who uses AAC.

Key things that Barry identified as key to making a conversation go well for him are:

  • Give me time to talk to you
  • Talk to me and not my support worker
  • Don’t finish my sentences for me
  • Don’t read the screen on my device – look at me
  • Don’t pretend to have understood me – be honest in our interaction

We can chat with Professor Hawking

With these few ‘top tips’ we can have good chat with Professor Hawking, or with anyone who uses AAC.

More information on augmentative and alternative communication can be found at

This week’s blog was by @lindamarionpage – Speech and Language Therapy Service Lead for Augmentative or Alternative Communication, NHS Ayrshire & Arran.


  1. I found this a really interesting and informative blog and one which will make me think when I next see Professor Hawking give an interview. Thanks.

  2. I also found this article very interesting and informative. I have to admit I have always thought that when we hear Professor Hawkins speak that it was instantaneous.
    I also think that Barry’s tips for a converstion going well is a good reminder of the way we should communicate with people of all walks of life, children, patients and colleagues

  3. Thank you, I really enjoyed reading this Linda, very helpful in rasing awareness and understanding of the closed and probably very frustrating world of all who use augmentative or alternative communication.

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