I had the privilege of attending the 2012 AAC-RERC State of the Science Conference in Baltimore last week. It was eye-opening, mostly because with very few exceptions (like me, mostly), the folks in attendance were assistive technology professionals rather than consumers or parent advocates. It was a little like sneaking under the grownups’ table and listening in on the conversations.
That analogy feels especially appropriate, actually, in light of some of those conversations. As you might expect, there were a great many discussions concerning the use of the iPad and other consumer electronics products as assistive communication hardware in place of the older generation of expensive and frankly unwieldy dedicated speech devices. In a conference dedicated to the future of assisted communication, this was entirely appropriate. What was interesting to me, however, was how in the midst of a lot of new thinking, I heard frequent expression of some very old thinking, too.
Look. I get that this is a scary time for speech language professionals. The democratization of the AAC evaluation and decision-making process has thrown the industry in something of a tailspin. That process has, in the past, been largely driven by experts in the field. Funding and implementation decisions have always been in their hands, leaving parents and teachers and especially end users to trust and to hope that the recommendations that come from those experts will be accurate and appropriate. And I feel confident in assuming that in most cases, they are.
As we learned with Schuyler in 2005, however, in some cases, the experts get it very, very wrong. And when they do, those of us who must live with the results of their expert decisions don’t always have a great deal of recourse.
The revolution in consumer electronics choices is a game changer in that respect. To hear many speech language professionals, however, you could be forgiven for thinking that this democratization is a dangerous development. Over and over at the conference, I heard how parents were just running out and buying iPads, downloading the newest and shiniest AAC apps and then just expecting therapists to somehow “make it work” with their kids. Parents, that most ridiculous and pollyannish group in the process, we’re screwing it up for everyone by daring to make decisions for our kids, decisions that some of these experts believe are ill-informed. We’re like children ourselves, suddenly freed from the restrictions wisely placed on us by grownups. I actually heard one speech language professional invoke Lord of the Flies. I’m not even kidding.
And here’s the thing. I’m sure that happens, and not infrequently. But in the same way that it would be unfair for me to assume that because one assistive technology expert failed Schuyler so miserably at a pivotal time in her development, therefore they are useless as a profession, I think it’s a mistake to dismiss the work of parent advocates on behalf of their kids because you’ve dealt with some whose desperation and lack of information has led them down paths that aren’t productive. It would be a worst mistake to convince yourself that because of this, new and accessible technologies are a dead end for the future of assistive technology.
I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. Teachers and therapists should think of parents as the most valuable members of their team, now more than ever. Not just because we will never stop fighting for our kids, and not because we will prove to be the quickest of studies when it comes to learning about what our kids need, and not even because we have the ultimate incentive to get it right in a way that surpasses even the most dedicated speech language professional. Professionals would be well advised to welcome parents and end users into the process as equal partners because the world has changed, and we are making final choices now. How you as professionals feel about that is frankly becoming irrelevant. Adapt or perish. And teach us to make the best decisions we can, starting off by educating yourselves as to what those choices now include.
I will say that one of the most interesting objections to the current direction of AAC in regards to the iPad was one that I hadn’t thought about before, and which on reflection feels entirely valid. At one of the groups discussions I participated in, a participant said she found the current crop of AAC apps to be completely disappointing, primarily because they represented old thinking. Every single of of them, particularly the ones that have established themselves at the top of the field, have simply striven to replicate the experience of using a standard speech device on the iPad. She maintained that perhaps it’s not just the physical hardware that needs to be rethought, but rather the entire experience. A new approach to how that assisted speech might work, and a newer, deeper integration with social media.
The iPad and its competitors are cracking a door to the future of assisted communication. Perhaps it’s time for us to kick that door all the way open.