The ladies from Speak for Yourself very kindly shared with us their motivation to create the app that I used throughout No Voice Week:
When people ask us what drove us to create Speak for Yourself, it’s difficult to pinpoint any single driving force. The short, true answer is that we created it because we wanted to make a clinically sound language system available and accessible to as many people as possible. It started with the premise that everyone should have the right to communicate. Communication allows people to build relationships and participate in life. Everyone has something to say.
We are speech-language pathologists and Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) Consultants who have spent years working strictly with children (3-21 year olds) who use AAC. Prior to creating Speak for Yourself, we completed AAC evaluations for students in New Jersey and then worked with the students and teams to support language development and device implementation strategies. We would also help parents complete insurance and funding paperwork and work with districts and device companies to secure a device for the student. Of course, we’re in New Jersey where insurance typically covers durable medical equipment. The rest of the world is not so fortunate. In many parts of the country and world, insurance coverage for communication devices is not an option. The process was time consuming, (at the minimum a few months…sometimes years), but when everything worked as planned, the students had a voice, and we breathed a sigh of relief and shared in the students’ success. Then we were able to get to the real work…implementing AAC and teaching the child to use the device.
Unfortunately, everything doesn’t always work as planned. For some nonverbal students, we would work with the teams and support them through the trial and paperwork process, but something would go wrong. The insurance company would deny coverage stating that a device is not “medically necessary.” The district would say that a device and accessories totaling around $9,000.00 was not in the budget. Parents would lose their job and insurance coverage. Whatever the reason, some of the students, no matter how successful they were, no matter how much their behaviors had decreased since they had access to a communication device, did not get their own device.
Those are the students who drove us to create Speak for Yourself. We would go into those same classrooms to work with another student and a former student would come over to us. She would look in our bag. She would use the “new” student’s device to tell us something that she remembered from the time that she had a voice, and her face would light up. The classroom staff would direct her to her next activity, and her smile would fade as she walked away. Eventually, she stopped interacting with us. We would walk into the classroom and she sat quietly in her cubicle. Stuck in her own mind with the ability to communicate, but not the tool. Heartbreaking.
When the iPad was invented, we saw the market shifting. Slowly at first…a student here and there, but we saw the potential. Districts who were not able to buy $9,000.00 devices budgeted for iPads in bulk. Districts and parents were asking for our help to reprogram apps. We began to realize that it was the only chance some children were going to get to have a voice. We reprogrammed…extensively. We started talking about what we would do if we were designing our own app…and we haven’t stopped since!
Many of the features in Speak for Yourself came from watching what children did naturally when they used AAC. For example, when a button didn’t speak when it was touched, they would hit that same button again. As it turns out, that is an innate behavior and it is true of anyone…if you push a button expecting something to happen and it doesn’t, you automatically push it again. That is the reason that the core vocabulary word on the main screen is in the same place on the secondary screen. Also, we noticed that we could reliably get most students to access two buttons prior to having the word spoken. When they were required to access 3 or more buttons, we would lose some of them. When we designed Speak for Yourself, we organized it so that the user had access to 14,000 words, with no more than 2 touches to say a word. There’s no complex page navigation and motor planning remains consistent throughout the user’s lifetime. Once they learn to say “drink,” that is how they will say it for as long as they use the app. This allows language to be cumulative in the same way that it is cumulative for verbal children who are learning language. You say “drink” now the same way you learned to say it as a young child.
We designed the blueprint of Speak for Yourself as a PowerPoint presentation, and we looked at each other and knew that it would work and make a difference in someone’s world. Communication is a basic human right, and if someone has a pulse, they have the right to communicate their wants, needs, thoughts, ideas, and feelings. We have seen that glimmer in a child’s eye, the relaxed smile, and the weight being lifted off of them the first time they are able to express themselves. We know, without a doubt, that your world changes when you can Speak for Yourself.
Heidi LoStracco, MS, CCC-SLP and Renee Collender, MA, CCC-SLP
Speak for Yourself LLC