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The End of an Experiment

Back in the summer of 2005, when Schuyler was first beginning her journey with augmentative communication technology and was being served very poorly by her Austin-area school, we visited with members of the public school district’s assistive technology team in the north Dallas suburb of Plano. We were expecting to learn that the Plano schools supported students using AAC devices in the classrooms. What we discovered instead was that beginning the next semester, a pilot program would place about a dozen students using AAC devices in a single classroom, with the goal of training them on their devices and building their self-esteem and their sense of community while preparing them to be mainstreamed using assistive technology. Schuyler was invited to join that program, and we moved to the Dallas area within a few short weeks.

It was an innovative program, with maybe half a dozen parallels across the country. It was the subject of the final chapter of my memoir and subsequently served as a model for similar classes in various parts of the country.

This week, I learned that as of next semester, the Plano Independent School District will be discontinuing the program.

This wasn’t a huge surprise, to be honest. A few years ago, when I met with the district’s director of special education, it was clear that a philosophical change was occurring. It wasn’t that the district wasn’t supporting the use of AAC technology in the classroom. Quite the opposite appears to be the case. When the AAC class was begun in 2005, it contained a dozen students, with a handful of others scattered throughout the district. At the time of my meeting in 2010, there were about eighty AAC users spread out among the schools of the district. I can only imagine what those numbers would reflect today.

So why was this class discontinued? Parents of special education students see it all the time. With changes in special education administrators come different philosophies, and implementation of those philosophies can feel arbitrary to those who have been functioning under the previous system. Also, Plano’s AAC classroom was expensive to maintain, not just in materials but also in its extremely skilled faculty and staff. With a change in administration and a new commitment to a more fully realized concept of inclusion, the decision was made to support the one or two AAC students on any given campus within the parameters of their own curriculum rather than expanding the AAC class on additional campuses to accommodate the growing AAC student population. The special educators on each campus would be expected to support those students and their AAC devices. Specific support from a traveling assistive technology expert would be provided as needed.

I must confess, I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, the program really was remarkable. I still get email from teachers and speech language students who have read my book and are interested in learning more about how the class works. The biggest advantage that the class offered wasn’t a pedagogical one. The primary benefits were social, providing a safe environment where these kids could learn and communicate in their own weird little way without self-consciousness. Anyone who has worked at all with children and AAC technology can tell you how implementation will succeed or fail largely on how enthusiastically the user buys into the concept in the first place. Getting past the social stigma of using a speech prosthesis is not a small hurdle.

At the same time, I understand that it might have been unsustainable. And I also am intimately aware that the technology may be moving far too fast now for a concentrated classroom program to keep up. When we informed Schuyler’s IEP team that she would be switching to the iPad next semester, we were informed that the school district wasn’t yet supporting the use of iPads as speech devices, primarily because none of the apps were actually developed by speech language professionals. (This is in fact entirely untrue; I believe that pretty much all of the most popular and respected AAC apps were created by those professionals. Well, of course they were.)

But the honest truth is that none of the teachers Schuyler worked with this year were terribly familiar with the technology Schuyler was already using, and as a result, she actually rarely used it. Her ability to make herself understood verbally was seen as progress, and adequate to most of the tasks she needed. Ultimately, I think that was an error in approach, robbing her of a level of nuanced and detailed expression that she’ll need to recapture next year if she’s going to make it. That will come, I believe, and it will do so with new tools, regardless of the levels of official support.

Ultimately, I think the AAC classroom program was one that could have been a much greater success than it turned out to be. But to do so, it would have required an exponential growth that might have been financially unfeasible, and also a much greater flexibility in regard to new technology. I hope that similar programs across the country will be able to solve those problems, because I still believe that the philosophy behind those programs is sound. And I feel pretty confident that it made the difference in my own daughter’s life.

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