Thirty Years of Communication Devices

I am going  to share my LA speech with you!  It’s about my life experiences with communication trials and triumphs. Since thirty years is a lot to cover in a post,  I’m just going to dive in.

I was forced into getting my first speech generating device. I was going to be mainstreamed into my neighbourhood school system. All of my beloved teachers and parents agreed that I needed a way to communicate with my new peers and teachers. They were correct, of course. Nonetheless, I felt like they ganged up on me! I resented, the idea that my voice wasn’t clear to the average person I met. However, I thought if I tried hard and long enough, a person could learn to understand me. Clearly, I was day dreaming. because it is, a rare friend who will take the time to learn my peculiar axcent.

So, I was stuck learning a device I loathed, called the handivoice. The Handivoice was portable, true, but atrocious to learn. How many of you are, into numbers? Well, the handivoice just might be the AAC device of your dreams. The way this device worked is through a numeric code system. For instance, typing one hundred, would produce the sentence, I need help. 550 would start the words for the body. names, had to be spelled out by using the alphabet, codes 701 to 726. My sister’s name is, Carol. That’s five, three digit codes. We were able to shorten that down to only two codes. By using the word, care and the letter L. So, the codes for Carol was something like, 597 and 712.

I am not a, numbers gal. I was not motivated to learn this language composed of numbers, to say the least. Therefore, my speech pathologist created a cheat sheet for me on a battery powered scrolling directory. In some instances, the directory became my, low tech AAC device.

The handivoice had several drawbacks. It had no notebooks in which I could store things I wanted to say. I clearly remember preparing my graduation speech. I must have spent two hours programming my Parting remarks on to the handivoice. after I was finished, I went outside to get some fresh air. When I wanted to go back into the school, I singled to someone to help me with the door. As I was doing so, my hand dropped on to the devices power button. The handivoice turned off, and my speech was gone! Horrified, I raced to my speech pathologist, and she helped me to reenter the speech into the device, just in time to go to graduation.

If a device is not capable of storing the user’s own personal aray of conversational starters, and personal stories. It would be like hitting a baseball and running towards first base, each time a person turns on their communication device.

Another strike against the handivoice, is that it had just one voice. it was a deep male sounding voice. I was a twelve year old, petite thing. what’s wrong with this picture? For one thing, I wasn’t driven to use the device, because I was embarrassed by the voice. Second, in some instances, the synthesized voice was a lot harder to understand than my own voice. Why would I want to use an inferior voice then mine?

The handivoice finally came in handy, when I was meeting my new classmates. I let them play with it. I was really popular in school for a, while! However, when I had something I wanted to say to my new friends, it was difficult to reestablish control over my device.

After three years of trying to make it work for me, I severed my relationship with the handivoice. I just didn’t get the hang of using it for a reliable communication source. I vowed I would never have another voice generated device again. I kept my promise for over fifteen years. During that time, I fluctuated between two AAC devices, the canon communicator, and a Toshiba lap top computer.

The canon communicator was a small device with the alphabet and number keys. As I typed my message, ticker tape spewed from the canon’s side. I loved the canon, because it was very small and portable. My communication partners loved walking away from our talks with my end of the conversation. The only flaw the Canon had, was that it didn’t have anyway to store the key things I said over and over.

The Toshiba computer had a synthesized voice. However, I can probably count the number of times I actually used the voice. So, I can safely say, that system didn’t count for much.

Am I regretful, that I didn’t try to find a better communication device alot sooner?  No way! how could I miss something, I thought I would hate?

A few perceptive people would wonder out loud, I should think there would be a more sophisticated communication device for you. My favorite reply was to roll my eyes, shake my head with exasperation, and say, no this suits me just fine! years rolled by.

My interests and goals changed. I became involved in my state’s Partners in Policymaking class. A class where parents and self advocates, learned skills to advocate for changes in our state. I had to give several speeches through out the course of the class. I wrote the speeches, however my personal assistant was the one who read them, while I awkwardly, sat next to her, and acted like I belonged up there. I was really bothered by someone telling my own stories.

That question that mere strangers asked me, kept spinning in my head. Was there a communication device somewhere in the world that I would be willing to use? As fate would have it, one of my classmates from partners used an AAC device, and he had nothing but good things to say about his speech pathologist. I reasoned, with myself that there was no crime in just seeing how communication devices had evolved, over the years.

When Doctor Fried-Oken first saw me, she didn’t have a shred of doubt that she couldn’t help me to find a communication device. It was just a matter of finding the right match. It was the voice that hooked me first. I heard the best synthesized voice, and it came really close to sounding like a feminine voice. My heart was soaring through the clouds. Then, it plummeted back to earth, as I learned how the device worked. Another coding system, my brain was screaming at me to run away. Doctor Fried-Oken reeled me back in. “You can learn this device, Jan. It works by icon association.”

I found my brain could retain that the icon APPLE, stands for food when I pair it with the NOUN icon. When I pair the APPLE with the ADJECTIVE icon, the word hungry is typed. And, when I place APPLE along side the VERB, icon, the word eat appears. Then by grouping two picture icons APPLE and CACTUS, I have accessed, the Mexican food group. So, by stringing together APPLE, CACTUS and MORNING, I will get the food, taco. Just trust me, if you emerge yourself in learning this language known as Minspeak, as I did, you would be ready to communicate with moderate success, within six months.

When I told my family I was thinking about getting another speech generated device, I received mixed reactions. My mom supported me, even though I saw the doubt in her eyes. Carol was very blunt with me. She said, you hated the handivoice. What makes you think you will like, this new device any better?

I visited Carol one beautiful weekend. She was anxious to get outside, and do some gardening. she said I could join her outside, but she forbid me to talk to her. If I communicated with her, it was likely that she would have to stop what she was doing just to focus on my words. I agreed to hold my tongue, however I had Carol mount the communication device on my wheelchair before going outside. I figured she could garden, while I practiced my new language of Minspeak. I held my tongue alright, however we ended up having a conversation anyway, thanks to the Liberator communication device. she didn’t have to stop gardening once to interpret my words. I showed her, didn’t I! From that moment on, Carol was a big fan of the Liberator. The next thing I knew, she was asking me to give some presentations with her.

My biggest worry about getting the Liberator, was whether I would use it. Well, the Liberator was literally falling apart when it’s sucessor, the Pathfinder arrived. I held off getting the Pathfinder for as long as I could, because I didn’t want to learn to use another device. As it turned out, I was able to transfer my programmed stuff to the Pathfinder. by the way, A feature that I think the world of.

The only frustrating experience about getting the Pathfinder, was that Minspeak, (the language program I had used on the Liberator for ten years,)   had under gone a transformation to make it easier for newer users to learn. Once I reasoned that it was like learning a slightly different dialect, I absorbed it, quickly.

 I have caught you up to the current device I use, called the Echo. I have only been working with it a month, and it’s been an easy transition. Each of my last three devices have come from the same company, which has made transitioning to new devices so  much easier!    

Now I can have a little fun sharing with you what features I would build into a communication device. I want to think of a thought, and have my device say it. However, thoughts coming directly from the brain are so random, that I would likely get myself into trouble after five minutes of having such a device.

I know there, are groups working diligently on disarthric speech recognition. I know, because I have supplied a group with a sample of my disarthic speech. It is a fantastic ambition, however my voice fluctuates so greatly from day to day, that I fear that it is an impossible task. I sincerely hope they prove me wrong one day, soon!

I want an AAC device that will reflect my mood. If I want to sound sarcastic, I want people to understand that I’m being flippant. I like to tease people from time to time, and sometimes it frustrates me that the synthesized voice is so monotone, because it doesn’t reflect my unique personality.

I want a button for loud environments. whenever they are, in loud places synthesized voices become deathly quiet. It would be nice to push a button and have the volume raised exponentially so that I can be heard.

Having communication devices that will get a, animal’s attention would be a boon. I had a wonderfull dog for ten years. Duke knew my own voice well, however he totally ignored my communication device. I just think there might have been a time when he was loose outside, and in a dangerous situation, where getting his attention was vital. I wish I had some signal on my device that only dogs can hear, which would have dropped Duke immediately. I believe the technology is already out, it’s just a matter of getting it on communication devices.

I spend significant amounts of time waiting around for transportation. I would love it if I could down load books and games on to my device. Then along with that, I want a long lasting battery, for obvious reasons!

I wish my device would tell me when I’m about to make a huge communication blunder. The other week, I ran into a high school friend. We only had a few minutes to exchange some remarks. Rusty, shared how his wife had him busy driving her and a co-worker all over town, to get to job engagements. I hurriedly typed in that I thought Amy should start paying him. However, in my hurry, what was actually said was. Amy, should start selling you. He had a puzzled look, and suddenly I realized what the communication device said. I must have turned every shade, of red possible. I know I’m being facetious here, because I am the one who needs to be aware of what I’m typing. However, ten years ago who knew that you would be able to turn on and off your house lights from your phone half way around the world. So, anything is possible.