The Right Stuff (part 1)

Thus far, we have just nibbled around the edges of what is involved in bringing a new augmented communication solution to the relevant market. Let’s now take a bigger bite of the apple and talk about that overall process and the obstacles associated with it.

 

At least in the US, there are legions of trained—and sometimes certified—professionals ready to help people overcome, or at least deal with, aspects of a disability. Sometimes, technology is part of the solution that is recommended. The technology available can be so broad-ranging that individual professionals out in the field can’t even hope to keep current. Instead, they turn to lists of pre-evaluated answers that institutions such as universities may publish as a starting point. This is a reasonable, logical approach that unfortunately may contain some hidden roadblocks to finding the answer that’s actually best in a particular case.

 

We are largely talking about speech-language pathologists when it comes to helping a disabled person communicate. Here, courtesy of a national professional association known as ASHA, is a definition of what a SLP does:

Working with the full range of human communication and its disorders, speech-language pathologists:

·         Treat speech, language and swallowing disorders in individuals of all ages, from infants to the elderly.

·         Evaluate and diagnose speech, language and swallowing disorders.

In addition, speech-language pathologists may:

·         Prepare future professionals in colleges and universities.

·         Manage agencies, clinics, organizations, or private practices.

·         engage in research to enhance knowledge about human communication processes.

·         Develop new methods and equipment to test and evaluate problems.

·         Establish more effective treatment.

·          Investigate behavioral patterns associated with communication disorders.

Speech-language pathologists often work as part of a team, which may include teachers, physicians, audiologists, psychologists, social workers, rehabilitation counselors and others. Corporate speech-language pathologists also work with employees to improve communication with their customers.

You can see how a SLP is expected to wear many hats. Interestingly, there’s nothing about evaluation of new technical solutions, but they are usually expected to do that as well. However, a SLP is ultimately as human as the rest of us, and they can only keep track of so many things at once. If they find something that seems applicable to a variety of different situations, it’s understandable if they develop a bias toward that solution. Of course, that bias only increases the difficulty of a new solution based on a different philosophy entering the augmented communications market.

Let me offer a specific example of what I mean. There seems to be the perception among many (most?) SLPs that one measure of how useful a computer-based solution can be is how far ahead it can successfully predict what the use wants to say. The gold standard appears to be prediction of entire thoughts based on as few keystrokes as possible. To be clear, there’s no doubt that’s desirable since it saves both the user and those listening to him time and effort. There are also some disabled people who really need pre-structured communications. Yet, if you stop and think about how “normal” people talk, you quickly realize they don’t typically say precisely the same thing twice within time frames they can remember. Indeed, if I start to say “I’m ready for bed” two nights in a row, I feel like I’m in a mental rut and will automatically say something else. Hence, while prediction is certainly desirable, people with so-called “higher mental function” need to also be able to easily vary what is spoken. I must wonder if highly-predictive solution aren’t inadvertently encouraging their users to be mentally lazy.

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Chickens and Eggs

Can you imagine a demographic group in the US sitting still for 75-88% (depending on the definitions used) unemployment? I don’t need to imagine it, because I’m part of such a group.

Of course I’m talking about people with disabilities. Or, as they are more commonly called, disabled people. To me, it’s academic what label is attached to the group. What matters to me is the relationship between this group and society as a whole. We are largely silent to levels of discimination that would have Blacks still rioting in the streets. Why is that?

That’s a difficult question to answer, partly because so many factors are involved. I think it has to begin with the group itself. We don’t generally see ourselves as a group with a common set of needs and goals. That’s understandable, to a degree, because you can ask ten disabled people what their needs are and get ten different answers. It’s true that the details of our needs vary with the specifics of our disabilities as well as our situations. Yet, we can’t deny that we do share a set of core needs, and chief among them is the need to be able to earn a decent living, and access to tools truly capable of enabling us to accomplish that goal and effectively participate in society. Working for a living isn’t just a way to get money, it allows us to improve our self-worth by being productive members of society.

Sadly, though, most disabled people aren’t even trying to find work. They sit in homes, barely getting by on government subsidies, and essentially wait to die. That’s not a pretty description of their circumstances, but it is fairly accurate. Being able to earn money doesn’t buy happiness, but it certainly opens up more possibilities! And, if you’re capable of understanding what I’m saying, there is something productive and employable that you’re capable of doing. This wasn’t always the case, but it is today thanks to computers.

The other requirement for meaningful employment is having tools that work well. There are numerous examples of tools that miss the mark. If you’re like me and need computer assistance to talk, you probably already know there’s nothing currently accepted in the augmented assistive communication market that is capable of carrying on an abstract conversation with a total stranger in nearly real-time. Not even the mighty Dynavox, at $15,000, can meet the last requirement. I was hired by Shell Oil because someone owed someone else a favor. But, I stayed with them for 14 years because I had the programming skill to create a text-to-speech solution they found quite palatable. That’s where the chicken and eggs come from. It seems you can’t get employed without the perfect tools, and you almost have to be employed in order to develop what you really need. The AAC market is very resistant to new ideas.

What to Say?

Yeah, right, that is the question? I mean, why start a blog? My main site is www.conchbbs.com, and it’s been up for two years with virtually no activity. Am I that dull?

Well, yeah, that make be true, but an independent website is also out there all on its own. It issn’t part of a pre-fab community like MSN. People can only find your website if they enter a keyword that a search engine found on your site. This makes getting your word out a real challenge. To a degree, this blog is meant to help that process along.

Yes, this will be a stream-of-conscious blog in that it will contain my thoughts as I can find time to record them. Mostly, it will be about my continuing battle to get my software, Xpress It, accepted in the medical-related market where it seems so badly needed. That’s to say, this blog will sometimes read like chapters of the WWII novel, Catch 22, because of all the twists and contradictions involved.