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The Iceman Cometh, with his Legal Team

Originally published March 26, 2012, but given the current standing of Apple to remove Speak for Yourself (SfY) from it’s app store, we thought it was appropriate to run again. Visit here for current information on Apple’s decision the its impact. 

 

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It has been one of the biggest questions floating about the world of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) since the release of the iPhone and iPod Touch and especially the iPad.

How will the big companies that make expensive dedicated speech devices respond to these new technologies? Will they develop their own apps and expand their work to utilize this new technology? Or will speech device makers ignore the rapidly changing face of technology, like the iceman stubbornly delivering blocks of ice until every house on the block owns a refrigerator/freezer of their own?

Now we seem to have the beginnings of an answer, and perhaps a quintessentially American one at that. They are going to sue the pants off the competition.

Okay, let’s wander into the weeds for just a moment. Last year an AAC app called Speak for Yourself was released that got the attention of a lot of us because of its use of the LAMP (language acquisition motor planning) concept. This focuses on a core vocabulary using consistent motor patterns that do not change. It is the basis of successful language systems like MinSpeak, licensed by the intellectual property company Semantic Compaction Systems for use in devices produced by the Prentke Romich Company, under the brand name Unity. It is these two affiliated companies, Semantic Compaction and PRC, that are attempting to sue the aforementioned pants off the developers of Speak for Yourself.

There’s a temptation to look at this as a sort of “David versus Goliath” scenario, and I can see how that seems appropriate. Speak for Yourself is a development company that actually consists of two speech language pathologists, Heidi LoStracco, MS, CCC-SLP and Renee Collender, MA, CCC-SLP. That’s it, I guess. Meanwhile, back at the PRC corporate headquarters, it’s easy to imagine a big room with a table surrounded by slick lawyers in fancy suits. But the reality is that PRC is a relatively small company, almost like a family operation. They might bring a little less muscle to the table than people might expect. It might be more appropriate to think of this as “David versus David’s older brother Jeff, who wrestled in high school and is still pretty tough”.

But still, yes, it’s two companies and their combined resources against two individuals who draw SLP salaries, so it stil feels wildly unbalanced.

Do Semantic Compaction and PRC have a case? I don’t know. First of all, I’m not an attorney. I don’t even play one on television. I also haven’t had the opportunity to evaluate Speak for Yourself firsthand, although I have been trying to get my hands on an evaluation copy for some time. Word from other users suggest that it does seem to operate in a manner similar to MinSpeak/Unity, but is LAMP, which is mostly responsible for that similarity, a proprietary concept that beings to PRC and Semantic Compaction? Furthermore, in reading the lawsuit, it feels like the concepts named as subject to legal action are very general to AAC. Does this suit open the door to further action against other AAC app developers like the popular Proloquo2Go? The implications go far beyond this one case.

This isn’t just an abstract court case. For many families, this is deeply personal, visceral stuff. Dana is a mother whose daughter has been using Speak for Yourself with a great deal of success. She reacted to this court filing on her blog, Uncommon Sense. I imagine her experience is similar to those of other parents who may suddenly find themselves losing a tool that has been working, and working well, for their loved ones. The tool she’s in danger of losing isn’t just the app, either. She and others like her could potentially lose the ability to use LAMP-based assistive tech on the device of her choice.

This is no small thing, because here’s the most important part of this case. Semantic Compaction and PRC aren’t fighting to remove a competitor in the field of AAC apps. MinSpeak is completely, entirely, 100% unavailable for any iDevice. These companies are working very hard to ensure that if you want to use a LAMP-based language system with your child, you cannot do it on a consumer electronics device, at a baseline cost of $500 for the iPad and about $300 for the app itself. To use a language system that utilizes this concept, you would be required to purchase one of PRC’s devices. Comparable products start at about $7,500. Extended warranties run between $684 and $888 a year.

These are real financial questions, and they are at the center of real family decisions. My daughter has been using PRC devices since 2005, and it is no exaggeration to say that these devices, and more importantly their language systems, have made the difference for her. They have saved her. I can’t overstate how grateful we are to PRC and the amazing people we’ve worked with over the years.

And yet, at Schuyler’s next IEP meeting, we will begin the process of transitioning her from her PRC Vantage Lite, the one she calls Pinkessa, to either an iPod Touch or an iPad, most likely running Proloquo2Go. She’s not in love with the app, but it gets the job done for her, for now. Schuyler gave her own reasons for making that transition, so I’ll let her tell you herself:

Pinkessa was heavy and the backpack was a little heavy too. When I use Pinkessa everybody know I can’t talk. I think the iPad is best choice because it can help me with my voice and look like everybody.

;]

There’s another reason, however, one that she’s not aware of and with which I’m not terribly happy. PRC was kind enough to offer us a two-year extension on Pinkessa’s extended warranty in appreciation for the positive exposure they received from my book and from the appearances Schuyler and I put in after the book came out. It was a good thing they did, too, because Pinkessa is pretty, but she’s high maintenance. We’ve sent Schuyler’s device in at least once a year for big repairs.

That warranty runs out this month. Time to make a choice. Where does the future, and the smart financial choices, lie? In some ways, it’s a tough choice. PRC has made the difference for so long in Schuyler’s life. The thought of stepping away is daunting, and more than a little sad.

But in the ways that matter, it’s not a hard decision at all. The future of AAC tech isn’t in prohibitively expensive dedicated medical devices, certainly not for ambulatory users like Schuyler. And we would love to continue our relationship with PRC and MinSpeak in the form of an app that can transform Schuyler’s iPad into the next generation PRC/MinSpeak speech device for her, but it has become clear that such an app is never going to happen.

I have no idea how this lawsuit will resolve itself, but one thing is becoming clear. My greatest fear seems to be coming true. The company I love and which saved my daughter is going to be left behind. I think they may win this lawsuit but as a result lose the faith of a lot of users, people who would rather use MinSpeak/Unity than Speak for Yourself, but are ready to take whatever they can. As special needs parents and users, we are accustomed to making the best with what we’ve got, and also for searching out or creating innovative solutions.

Neither of which suggest a positive future for companies like PRC when they double down on denial and legal tricks and ignore the desires and needs of end users and the inevitability of technological change.

Ice vendors with vision learned how to make, sell and repair Frigidaires. The rest ended up sitting sadly in their horse carts, ice tongs at their feet and the dust of history gathering around them.

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