UCL and partners: supporting people with aphasia to have better conversations

Thanks to a new course developed by UCL, a charity and arts organisation, people with a communication difficulty are finding ways to make conversation easier.

Aphasia is a serious communication difficulty that affects how people speak, understand, read and write words. It’s something that can develop after a brain injury (most typically after a stroke) and 350,000 people are currently living with it in the UK.

Yet only 5% of the population have even heard of it, making what can be a very challenging condition also a very lonely place to be.

"Imagine not being able to speak like you can now. Not being able to order a coffee in a café, share your day with your partner, chat to your kids. That’s what it’s like for people living with aphasia. They’ve lost their language. It robs them of their ability to connect, to be heard and to listen," explains Firle Beckley, a speech and language therapist and PhD candidate based at UCL.

Firle has been instrumental in setting up the Art of Conversation with Aphasia, a new eight-week creative wellbeing course that helps people with aphasia to have more successful and enjoyable conversations. 

Conversation through art

Drawing on research from UCL’s Better Conversation Research Lab, led by Dr Suzanne Beeke , Associate Professor, UCL Department of Language and Cognition, t’he course embeds the latest conversation training in arts and culture. It’s facilitated by Firle, and artist facilitator Nikki Hafter,

"We use art to inspire conversation between the group, while also weaving in what we know about conversations from our research, to give people with aphasia and their family and friends new conversation techniques and tools.

" We create an environment in which the group look at, talk about and do art, combined with individually exploring with each couple a video of their everyday conversation to spark ideas about how they can keep their conversations flowing.

"It’s about designing and delivering a course that incorporates the knowledge of people with lived experience, together with art, to create something outside of people’s everyday experience, something that takes their minds off their aphasia for just a minute or two," says Firle.

Pooling collective expertise

The Art of Conversation with Aphasia has been co-designed by a team from UCL, the De La Warr Pavilion and the charity SayAphasia. Open to people with aphasia and their chosen family member or friend, the course brings together collective expertise about aphasia and new ideas on how to live well with it, from across the arts, health and academia.

The first series of sessions, which ran at the beginning of 2021, took place on Zoom due to the pandemic, but the team hopes to run future courses at the De La Warr Pavilion, a cultural centre on the south coast.

"It worked brilliantly online. In some ways it was more intimate as we got to see each other’s lives inside our homes. But doing it face to face will mean people can fully engage with the exhibitions at the De La Warr.

"We want to give people with aphasia the confidence to engage with the cultural activities happening on their doorstep, to know that art is for them too."

The Art of Conversation with Aphasia has been funded by UCL’s  ( HEIF ), managed by UCL Innovation & Enterprise. The project has also received support from the Business and Innovation Partnerships team in UCL Innovation & Enterprise.

Commenting on the initiative,  Kathryn Walsh, Executive Director, UCL Innovation & Enterprise,  said: "This project is a fantastic example of knowledge exchange in action, where we’ve been able to take UCL research and use it to create something that’s really making a difference to people’s lives. Bringing together ideas from across the arts, academia and the charity sector, this project is opening the door to an exciting new kind of training and therapy for people living with this debilitating condition."

Colin Lyall, founder of SayAphasia, who has aphasia himself after experiencing a stroke, and helped develop the programme, said: "Why I did this project was to be better, nice people to work with. Been doing guinea pig research trying things out, but this project, very good yeah, listened to and making things better for people with aphasia."

Firle and her collaborators are now working on plans to expand the Art of Conversation with Aphasia programme, with the aim of opening up the training to many more people living with the condition.

If you are an arts organisation or funder of art and health initiatives, and would like to support this vital work, please email acaphasia.pals@ucl.ac.uk.


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