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Model for vocabulary selection of sensitive topics: An example from pain-related vocabulary

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Determining vocabulary for sensitive topics, such as pain or abuse may pose a challenge in AAC service delivery as traditional methods, such as observations of children’s pain experiences could be seen as violating the ethical principles of non-maleficence (the obligation to do no harm) and respect for human dignity and privacy.
AIM: The main aim of the presentation will be to present a model for selecting vocabulary for sensitive topics. This model was developed from a study that aimed to identify a comprehensive list of pain-related words for use by children with significant communication difficulties who use or could benefit from AAC.
METHODOLOGY: The original study aimed at identifying pain-related vocabulary made use of a sequential exploratory mixed methods design with four phases. A detailed protocol for the selection of vocabulary for sensitive topics was developed from the study.
RESULTS: The model for selecting vocabulary for sensitive topics will be presented with reference to the four research phases from the study. These will entail the development and use of hypothetical scenarios with semi-structured follow-up questions completed by a variety of respondents with different perspectives; a stakeholder review and customisation of the word list to meet specific individuals’ needs, experience and circumstances.
CONCLUSION: An indirect process of vocabulary selection using the four phases enabled the successful selection of vocabulary around the sensitive topic of pain. The model developed can assist researchers and practitioners in successfully selecting vocabulary for other sensitive topics, such as pain, abuse and neglect.


Ensa Johnson    
Centre for AAC, University of Pretoria
South Africa

Juan Bornman    
Centre for AAC, University of Pretoria
South Africa

Kerstin Tonsing    
Centre for AAC, University of Pretoria
South Africa


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