Personal Essay

When I first started college in 2015, I wanted to be a business major. I was not sure why but knew that my parents had both done well with degrees in economics. I had previously worked at internships for a public relation company doing social media work with them which had felt very intuitive to me because, like most people born in the late 90s, social media and technology were very inherent to my life. I pursued business and media studies my first year and I did well in financial accounting because it felt similar to solving a puzzle to me. I really love puzzles, crosswords, and jigsaws. The summer after freshman year, I happened to land a job working as a special needs camp counselor.

I had never even thought about working with children as a future career. But I loved the job and the kids, to my surprise, really seemed to like me as well. I quickly found my stern discipline voice and how happy it made me when I was smiling all day, even if the smile sometimes felt forced. As a camp counselor, I sang and chanted with the group on the way to activities, I fired up the excitement before activities and helped deal with unique behavioral challenges that I had not encountered previously. We were trained to deal with behavioral issues using Applied Behavioral Analysis or ABA. This means we focused on what was happening before the behavior we wanted to change, such as a temper tantrum. We would observe what caused that behavior and what was reinforcing it. Then we would try to use positive reinforcements, such as stickers and toys to reward an appropriate behavior instead. For example, if a child had trouble staying calm during swim time and successfully stayed calm the entire swim period, then right after the child would get a sticker or toy of choice.

I found this to be extremely similar to a puzzle. I had to use the clues to solve what was triggering the behavior. When I returned to Emory for my sophomore year, I declared my major as psychology. Junior year I was lucky enough to get a job working at the Emory Autism Center. It was there that I saw augmentative and alternative communication technology, AAC, for the first time. Augmentative refers to the supplementation aspect of the technology, alternative communication for the communication happening via a different route and not through speech. One kid knew how to read and write but was preverbal. This child used an iPad with an AAC application, Proloquo2, downloaded to communicate, making times that had previously caused struggle and frustration, like snack time, now much easier. A kid could now use an iPad to ask for more snack, express happiness and anger, and request desired objects. The iPad spoke, it had a child’s voice and was so visually appealing to all the young children in the classroom which increased peer interest in communicating via the Proloquo2 app.

The augmentative and alternative communication application, Proloquo2 had many features that I found to be unique to the digital medium. The student or teacher could input photos as new word cards that included the names and faces of every student and teacher in the class to encourage social peer-to-peer interaction. It allowed other custom words with symbols, had bilingual capabilities and a variety of different voices and accents for the child to choose from. The previous methods of alternative communication before digital technology could not use both a unique voice for the child and include customized word entries as it had been more similar to a binder of symbols.

Here is a photo comparing older AAC tech with a current iPad application

This is when I realized I could use my previously chosen minor of media studies in conjunction with my passion for children with special needs. As I learned about the iPad application, Proloquo2, for preverbal or nonverbal individuals I wondered what other apps were being developed with assistive technology. In researching assistive technology, I came upon a distinction between assistive and accessible technology. Accessible technology is a device that users with a range of abilities can use. An example of accessible technology would be an iPad, which allows a voice to a text-based message which can be used by a typical user or one with a motor or physical impairment that makes it hard to type. An iPad and other Apple products also have text to Siri, which can aid me and individuals who are deaf or nonverbal. Assistive technology would be a device that is only used by individuals who have special needs, such as a hearing aid or the app Proloquo2.

Since my first encounter with assistive technology for children with autism, I have been cognizant to try to learn about other forms of assistive technology that help people who have different challenges. One application I downloaded and tried to use was Be My Eyes, an assistive application for those who have vision impairments. It is a video chatting smartphone application which allows sighted users to assist the visually impaired user with everyday tasks such as checking an expiration date or matching socks. The application was so popular, especially with sighted volunteers wanting to help that I never was contacted to assist in a video call.

As people in our environment become more aware and sensitive to including accessible or assistive features in technology, it has become more mainstream. One example, from Apple again, is the new hearing aid feature called Live Listen in the newest airpods. The airpod from Apple has become a large cultural phenomenon, along with a popular meme. The airpod signifies “clout” or expensive taste and creating a version with a hearing aid is very trendy and inclusive of Apple.

During this year’s Superbowl LIII a commercial for Microsoft was aired showing an Xbox product called the Xbox Adaptive Controller. The commercial featured kids with physical or developmental impairments playing with their non-disabled friends and beating them. The commercial, shown below, titled “We All Win” has continued the trend of assistive technology as increasingly popular and desired by software companies.

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