Whether it is voice recognition with or without eye tracking technology, educational or speech recognition software – assistive technology builds bridges that allow people to get in touch with their surroundings. REHACARE.com sums up software development challenges and reviews the lessons a company that specializes in augmentative and alternative communication devices has learned about communication thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.
It's never too late to start with UK. But it's easier when you're a child, of course. And it's also fun - as in the case of Hanna (pictured), who communicates using the GoTalk NOW app on her LIFEpad.
Gaming, making music or giving instructions to his dog Mia – 11-year-old Liam Weingartner is a bright child who thinks school is cool. He wants to be a paramedic, firefighter, or police officer when he grows up. The boy from Upper Austria loves speed, which is obvious when you see him expertly maneuvering his game console. He uses his eyes to control the race cars. Liam has a severe physical disability due to complications at birth and uses a wheelchair. But he is able to communicate by using eye movement to control his voice recognition system. That’s incredibly important to Liam and his parents. He received his first voice recognition system at the age of three, though this system is a far cry from the device he controls today. That’s because the program must evolve at the same speed as Liam’s vocabulary and language skills.
Unlike Germany, Austria does not grant people with disabilities the legal right of access to augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) or assistive technologies. About 63,000 Austrians have a language impairment. Families like the Weingartners get help from LIFEtool. This non-profit organization counsels and equips people with the tools they need to be successful. Currently available technologies are adapted to meet the person’s needs. This takes more than just the device itself. It also requires continuous monitoring of user environments. Only then can electronic communication aids ensure the maximum intended benefit. After all, communication is not a one-way street. "Hardware and software alone are not enough – you need counseling and training and include all the people involved in this process to make communication come alive," says David Hofer, CEO of LIFEtool.
The right "tool" ensures more participation
In our article titledAugmentative and Alternative Communication: The Right Enhancement to the Way We Communicate, Heike Köhler also cautioned that it can be difficult to find the right assistive technology. In a REHACARE.com interview in 2018, the marketing director of REHAVISTA, a company that specializes in communication resources, said it should be noted that "AAC does not just refer to electronic communication devices. 'Multimodal communication' should always be the goal, that is, a mix of different approaches to facilitate the best possible communication in every situation." Hofer agrees – after all, non-electronic resources can be used anywhere, anytime and don’t rely on batteries.
But: "The technological advancements of devices in recent years have shown us what happens when users have access to the right 'tool': that’s when they can showcase their skills and abilities, which drastically promotes self-determination and increases their participation in community and everyday life," says Hofer. "I am committed to ensure that the development and distribution of digital tools or artificial intelligence primarily maximize social benefits by placing people at the center of all applications," the CEO of LIFEtool continues to explain.
There are different types of communication and the people who have difficulties or are unable to communicate using spoken language are just as diverse and need custom solutions and a special touch. Finding the right communication system without companies like RehaMedia, which specialize in communication devices and consulting, is difficult. Nina Hormes, medical device consultant and rehabilitation educator (B.A.) says, "due to the different user groups and the many options in the field of augmentative and alternative communication, there are numerous strategies and solutions for everyday use. One’s personal obstacles are very unique." This requires a needs assessment – all three companies are experts in this area and willing to help.
Corona has also changed communication at LIFEtool. But via Zoom, the employees could still be there for their young and adult customers. For example, the screenshot shows Dominik using the GoTalk NOW application.
Increased awareness of computer-aided communication and its importance for users
Software development for these tools can be difficult – especially when it comes to AAC. "You need many different input options (joysticks, scanning, eye tracking technology) to make it easy for people with a wide range of assistive technology tools to actually use them. It also takes technological pedagogical content knowledge pertaining to software design and concept to reach the target audience," Hofer explains. LIFEtool thus relies on an interdisciplinary concept: the organization involves people with disabilities, software development experts, and educators in the development process.
Products such as KlickTool or CatchMe are early intervention tools that have become staples in the portfolio. Applications like FlashWords to learn math, writing and reading skills are must-have tools. Also GoTalk Now is a popular customizable AAC app. "Today, educational software is an integral part of helping AAC users or people with disabilities to succeed," says Hofer. Incidentally, this does not just apply to this target audience: the coronavirus pandemic has given educational software or media and virtual learning formats for students of all ages a substantial boost.
That being said, the coronavirus pandemic was and remains a challenge for LIFEtool. We can all agree that it has changed the way we communicate. Hofer concurs and says that the nature of communication with customers and partners in research and development projects has suddenly changed and has become more effective and often more intense. LIFEtool has learned to also build virtual bridges. While the learning curve has been steep at times, it ultimately made things better: "This situation has generally increased awareness of the need of people with disabilities and older adults for computer-aided communication as a way to participate in social, digital, and virtual activities."
Enter Liam, who is a beacon of hope for Hofer. The young man uses his computer to control his Lego technic cars and drone and even writes his own programs. "Liam uses technology at a nearly unfathomable scale. This technical environment fosters his problem-solving skills, which will benefit us all in the future. This makes him a bearer of hope in my eyes," says Hofer. That is also why the Austrian continues to emphasize at trade fairs or other tech events that technology and software should adapt to people, not the other way around. The person should always be at the center of these considerations. The CEO of LIFEtool hopes that one day it will be a matter of course for someone with Liam’s skills "to become the CEO of LIFEtool thanks to an inclusive education system." Provided that this is something Liam wants. That goes without saying.