Why a Blog?

Over the past
few days, a SLP acquaintance of mine has been sending email to me with all
sorts of juicy, thought-provoking comments. I requested his permission to share
the commentary in my blog, and he conditionally granted it. Apparently, his
only concern was that he would be slammed. That tells me I need to call for a
time-out to clarify the general function of blogging and the specific goals for

In general, a
blog—short for “web log”—is just a type of web page
where the owner writes about whatever is on his mind. The purpose is to air his
views and that’s as far as some blogs go, creating essentially an online
diary. That strikes me as narcissistic, and the norm is for the blog to offer a
link after each entry to another section where readers can publicly comment about
that entry. This effectively creates an opportunity to exchange views, which is
the origin of all progress. Yes, my entries contain my perspective of things. As
one of my English teachers taught me, phrases like “in my opinion”
are inherently redundant since our personal perspective affects all we think,
do, or say. That’s simply a function of how our brains are wired so we
can’t reach 100% true objectivity. The way we can perhaps get the closest
is by keeping a healthy skepticism about established views, and value those
from people with first-hand experience. A goal of my blog is to share the views
of an individual who is severely disabled, articulate, well-educated, and has
direct experience in creating one AAC warmly received by the able-bodied private
sector. By no means am I the final authority on how the severely disabled regard
able-bodied society, but I think my life as a severely disabled person, including
two terms as president of the Organization of Disabled Students at the
University of Houston, and continued contact today with younger versions of
myself globally in IRC and occasionally in person, give me some level of
understanding that clinical studies and trials might not. I know we often have
a very darkly fatalistic side that we work hard to hide from the AB world so we
aren’t locked away. Another purpose of my blog is to give a ray of hope
by showing that a severely disabled person can at least make some inroads into
the AB world, partly by doing whatever it takes to be properly equipped.

I hope nobody
feels that “their ox is being gored” (to borrow a phrase from an
old buddy who did two tours in Nam
as a SOG sergeant). Yet, I’m definitely stirring the Kim-che well in
order to challenge established thinking by the AAC community and the
verbally-impaired community. Some reactionary thinking is natural. It’s
quite fine to say some people want to stay in the 90s. That’s their
choice to make. However, isn’t it prudent to have more options ready for
when that stuff wears out? Presenting the options made possible by Xpress It is
a secondary goal here.

A couple of
quick technical notes: most blog authors don’t also send out copies of
their entries by email. I am, temporarily, in order to seed the discussion. Boy,
is that working! There has been more useful dialog about Xpress It in the past
two months than in the preceding five years. Of course the eventual goal is to get
everybody used to reading it at http://spaces.msn.com/members/adayinthelifeofaperson/,
but expecting busy professionals and mature housewives to instantly learn to
monitor RSS feeds is wishful thinking. On the other hand, using the comment links
will allow you to post your responses to the entries without potentially exposing
your email address to the address harvesters that crawl the Web.

As I said, a
SLP acquaintance sent a ton of stuff worthy of response. So much stuff, in
fact, that it’s mind-numbing. I think I better take a few days off before
trying to deal with it. This blog thing is taking on all the trappings of a
full-time job—except the paycheck. :/

One last
thing for now. My information on Dr. Hawkins and his Dynavox was from a 20-minute
segment that premiered in late 2003. if yours is fresher data, great. A price
cut to $8,000 just shows how criminally overpriced it was.



What I should have said…

I think I left a few key details out of my recent email conversation
with Dianne. Most significantly, I failed
to mention the breath of contacts my team has attempted to make. Accordingly, here’s
the list:


All 12 Houston-area school districts

M.D. Anderson Hospital Speech Pathology Department
Baylor College of Medicine (indirectly)
Texas Institute of Rehabilitation and Research

Texas Rehabilitation

Speech Pathology Department(?) of University
of Arizona at Flagstaff

Enable-Mart.com (online purveyor of various ACS)

ATResources.com (pending)

American Speech and Hearing Association


Of those listed above, only M.D. Anderson and UA at Flagstaff have taken the time
to look at any version of Xpress It. (TRC doesn’t count since they let
other professionals select the ACS, they simply pay for them.) MDA raised the
issues about wanting Xpress It to predict entire phrases and have built-in methods
of alternative input. As their director put it, she needs a good reason to
recommend our solution instead of her existing choices. In other words, they want
another all-in-one solution that they can prescribe across the broad range of
patients with communication impairments. I’ve already talked about their
reasoning in an earlier entry. It’s basically the same the thing that the
school districts are saying. The SLPs don’t have the time or knowledge needed
to stay current on a broad selection of ACS. I’m sure there’s truth
to that, but it in turn ignores a basic truism of software development. To wit,
any system written to accommodate a wide range of users with different needs
becomes a set of compromises. That unfortunately means, in the scope of ACS,
high-function users cannot get a solution capable enough to be valuable in such
real-world environments as an office. My own experience proved that.


Curiously, apart from the list above, I’ve encountered
several SLPs and related rehabilitation professionals while I’m “out
in the field,” and they get so excited that I half-way expect puddles to
start forming beneath them! Instead, I get to hear how Xpress It could really
help one of their clients. Sadly, however, these wonderful encounters all end the
same way. These people say they are just peons, and that I should contact the decision-makers
at one of the places listed above. So far, I haven’t even rated a referral.
(UA also fell into this strange category of response.)


Is it any wonder why I’m frustrated? I make no claim of
omnipotence, but, from my vantage point, the decision-makers are the ones isolated
in ivy towers. It seems to me high time to break out the precision guided
munitions and bring down those towers so the decision-makers see what level of ACS
performance is demanded by the workaday world. Of course this implies that most
self-aware disabled people want to work, but that’s a topic for my next
entry. 😉

FW: For What It’s Worth



From: Scott Royall
Sent: Friday, July 22, 2005 9:53
To: ‘Dianne’
Subject: RE: For What It’s Worth




As an intelligent person, I’m
certain that you are quite familiar with the old adage, “can’t see
the forest for the trees.” You spent your working career being a very committed
tree in the educational forest. That is something to be proud of. There’s
also no doubt that others are just as dedicated. After all, there are much
easier ways to earn a living. Unfortunately, dedication alone doesn’t
assure an education system that does the best job for its real customers, the
students. Have you ever been to a doctor who seemed to regard you as more of an
object, a case to be studied, rather than a person? Of course. I think we all
have. From the doctor’s perspective, he has all the training and
experience so how can you have anything germane to say? Well, educators can be
the same way. Just sit back for a second and take an objective look at your own
response to perceived criticism of the education system. Aren’t you being
somewhat defensive?  Yes, and it’s because, to you as a “tree
in the forest,” there is no separation between those dedicated educators
and the system itself. Please remember that organizations of extremely
dedicated and talented people can still do stupid things. One look at NASA
validates that assertion, right?

Any system, whether it’s education, a spacecraft, a sailing ship, a car,
or even a society, must receive and internalize input—criticism, if you
will—from outside sources if it is to reach its goal. That’s why we
still navigate by the stars—natural or artificial, because there
isn’t another reference that’s anywhere nearly as impartial. The
stars don’t care how noble you are; they simply tell you if you’re
off-course. Another cold and hard fact is that strangers outside of the Special
Ed community cannot usually understand the ACS students are getting. You could,
because of your time listening to those synthesizers. Humans can almost
automatically learn to relate any sound to a specific meaning if given enough
practice. However, that’s not how things go out in the world.


My opinions have nothing to do with blame,
but everything to do with where the issues are. With that in mind, I have to
put it to you that some of those people in that ivy tower you mentioned are
educators. They are certainly not going out and asking strangers if they can
understand a given voice synthesis system. Vendors usually don’t either.
Your response is interesting as it is quite similar to the response
decision-makers have been giving Xpress It. The reaction is basically,
“how dare you advise us. We’re the ones who know what students
need.” Maybe they do, but the result is a graduating student who
won’t be able to communicate with the myriad of strangers out in the
world. In effect, these students are no better off than when they entered the


I do not pretend to know all the facts and
have all the answers. I can tell that you don’t either. In essence, that
imperfect picture of the world is at the very core of Xpress It. Xpress It is
an augmented communication system, pure and simple. That means that verbal
communication is its forte and all it knows about. Xpress It neither knows nor
cares if its input is coming from a real keyboard or a virtual one on-screen
controlled by a mouse or various scanning devices. In computer parlance,
that’s called “device independence,” and I submit that
it’s critical to giving the Disabled better access to computers. My
contention is, based on direct experience, that computers are the one class of
technology that comes closest to enabling the Disabled to function as societal
members. That implies that disabled people need to be able to use the same
commercial software everybody else does. In fact, that is pretty much a
prerequisite for holding any significant job. No ACS should ever impede that
ability, but, so far as our research has shown, only Xpress It can pass that
test. Remember that I had to write Xpress It after all of the leading
contenders flunked out at Shell. That’s an empirical benchmark that even
the tallest ivy towers are ill-advised to ignore. Xpress It is designed to be
one piece in a jig-saw puzzle reflecting the set of solutions best suited to a
disabled individual. Just as the degree and impact of disabilities cover a
broad multi-dimensional spectrum, so must these mix-and-match solutions. The
catch is that the people who evaluate and recommend such things must become
smarter about things that can and should work together. Those decision-makers
we’ve talked to are resistant to giving up their Swiss Army knife
solutions and I can’t blame them. It will be a brave new world, but
there’s no better way to take the “dis” out of disabled.


I’ll leave you with this bone to
chew on. Obviously, no computers were available when we grew up so icon-driven
ACS weren’t an option. Instead, one teacher had the idea of introducing
me to an IBM Selective typewriter when I was kindergarten age. Yes, typing was,
and is, laborious, but it gave me the same ability to communicate anything I
could spell (or get close to spelling) that’s at the heart of Xpress It.
That’s why I’m somewhat eloquent mow. If I had been introduced to
an icon-driven solution, I would be much less educated than I am no matter how
virtuous my teachers were. An undeniable part of human nature is to follow the
path of least resistance to get what we want. Thus, my opinion is that children
with any sign of language comprehension should be kept well away from
icon-driven ACS or you risk blunting their motivation to master language.


I’m not going to rise to respond to
your views on sexual orientation because it’s well outside the scope of
our discussion.



From: Dianne []

Sent: Friday, July 22, 2005 1:59
To: Scott Royall
Subject: Re: For What It’s Worth




You may put my comments on your blog.  When I mention
the behaviors of students in middle school, I can tell you whether you except
it or not, young people are acting out homosexual behavior to be popular. 
Whether it will be their future orientation or not I don’t know.  I
understand what you say about your brother.  I, too, have been close to
gay people. I don’t think there is one answer to that.  There are
probably many reasons for that orientation.  One is thought to be behavior
practice and first experiences.  It can be chosen.  Perhaps you
half-brother is not one of these.  That doesn’t mean that others don’t


I don’t know about your one speech director.  I have
worked with many.  My last school was an inclusion school.  That is
not the whole answer either.  Again, it is easy for you to set on the
outside and comment and criticize.  It is quite another to work with the
reality and the real setting.  Intellectualization is not reality. 
It is an important part of the solution, but, it, alone, does not produce
results.  Hard work, trial and error, suffering through the failures of
educated efforts, seeking alternate methods, not giving up, these are some of
the factors that produce results with non-communicative youngsters.  A lap
top and software program will not do it.  They are the answer after the
real work is accomplished.  They are the conduit for showing what has been
learned.  They are not the process of learning itself.  They may help.
 A child who cannot spell or read cannot use your program.  I have not known
people to shove students aside and not have academic goals of reading.  I
have seen districts hire people for one-on-one help so that the student can get
the most out of academic instruction. 


Scott, how much time have you spent inside schools and
monitoring Special Education programs in recent years.  Are you listening
to one or two people who might be in ivory towers who are using their criticism
to make themselves feel superior.  I think you think you know what you are
talking about.  I don’t think you have a very good grasp of the programs
and situations.  Please don’t criticize what you don’t really know. 
Your experiences as a student are long ago in the past.  Special Education
methods and programs have come a long way.  Don’t kick these people. 
They would do anything they knew to work to make these students with
disabilities able to function in society.  To have people like you
sit on the outside and talk about their failures and accuse them of being
apathetic and ignorant is sick and non-productive. Perhaps you should get
a job helping.  Why don’t you talk to these people and offer to come in
and help students who need what you know?


You are welcome to put this on your blog also.





FW: For What It’s Worth



From: Scott Royall
Sent: Thursday, July 21, 2005
10:11 PM
To: ‘Dianne’
Subject: RE: For What It’s Worth




Much of what you say is true. In other
cases, though, it is the educators themselves who become the bottleneck. Apathy
is just one reason. Ignorance and misunderstanding are among the others. I can
tell you about the speech pathology director who lamented the challenge she had
simply convincing the teachers to teach reading to disabled children. The
teachers saw no point in it. No, this wasn’t in Houston.


Of course my point is that obstacles to
true inclusion of the Disabled are everywhere. I don’t know that it will
ever really happen. All people like me can do is keep pounding that wall in
hope of making things better someday.


The problem today is the focus on self.
It’s not just the family, or the schools, or any other single aspect.
It’s everything together.


I would like your permission to put your
comments in my blog.


By the way, I had a half-brother who was
gay so I know by close experience that sexual orientation is NOT a matter of
choice. You see homosexuality more today because murder has become less
acceptable as a form of “treatment.”



From: Dianne [.]
Sent: Thursday, July 21, 2005 9:07
To: Scott Royall
Subject: Re: For What It’s Worth




Good for you.  I think once you meet the people and see
how much they actually care about the students, you might have a little more
understanding of their goals and the reasons behind their system.  Money
is always an issue.  Parents are nearly always an issue even in the
Special Education Department.   More times than not, the school is
pushing the parents to get involved.  Sometimes when parents get involved,
they have unreal expectations.  The elementary schools usually get the
brunt of unreal expectations and suffer through the grief of the parents
coming to terms with their children’s disability.


Schools are a tough environment to survive.  Five years
is the average burn-out time for new teachers.  Fewer people are
going into education for some of those same reasons.  The lay person would
not believe what schools endure.  They cannot choose their students and
parents, they have to deal with what comes through their doors and that is
often a very ugly thing.   


Special Education has come a long way in the last few years.
Special Education is actually one of the better places to


Scott, while I wish you well and support your efforts, I do
not support you criticism of schools in general.  It is easy to set on the
sidelines and very articulately state what you think you see.  It is quite
something else to get on the inside and see what is really happening and figure
out how to change it. I know you are trying to do this and I appreciate
you for it.  School people are abused by others regularly and yet they
continue to do the job they have to do.  Most of them are extremely
dedicated and work far and above what they earn.  Some are extremely
bright and could do so much better in a different setting. 


I worked in schools back when things were better.  I
have watched what has happened to families and students and schools.  It
is not pretty and it is not the fault of educators.  I  know
there are exceptions because educators are humans.  All-in-all you will
not find a better group of people when it comes to dedication, honesty, and


I just had to say these things.  I am sickened by what
has happened to families and children in our society.  I almost killed
myself (not exaggerating) trying to hang on and endure the education
environment.  It was not the people, it was the influence of society on
children, parents and the bourdon it puts on schools.


I could talk for hours and curl your hair on the truths in
public schools.  One example was a student physically much like you,
Scott.  He came to my school in Stafford. 
His mother rolled his much-too-small wheel chair out to the street in the
morning and left him unattended while she went to work.  He arrived at
school with roaches in his mouth and ears.  This had to be checked in the
nurse’s office each day.  He was soiled and she changed him.  He was
hungry and she fed him.  He was thirsty and she and the teachers gave him
liquids.  When he was sick, he came anyway.  Child Protective
Services refused to help.  Mother would not follow through on any
referrals.  It was a mess. 


It would be wonderful if there were enough speech
therapist.  They are going into higher paying private practice and
hospital work leaving schools short handed in dealing with communication
needs.  The legislature has the power to increase salaries and pay scales,
yet, tax payers have to be able to afford their taxes.  The problems go on
and on and the solutions do not.  I personally think schools need to be
totally re-organized with more responsibility going to parents.  The old
way of maintaining large buildings and massive staff is not working. 
Society has to go back to caring about morals, values and education.  Most
of the children have no father and many have numerous siblings with different
fathers.  They have mothers that do not care and never finished high
school.  Sex is a sport starting in middle school.  You are expected
to have sex and having babies is praised by your peers.  Homosexuality is
growing and being practiced widely in middle school.  Knowing this, pay
attention to television and the views being raised up to these young
people.  Morals are laughed at.  Sex is the main theme.  The
general media is much the enemy of our society.

They care about ratings and money.  Sex and violence
always sells. 


Scott, I have read your e-mails explaining much of you
theories and ideas.  I just wanted to share some of mine.

I admire you for not stopping in life and participating as
you do.  I see that Xpress makes that possible.  Please be patient
and persistent in your endeavors.  Please do so with some understanding of
how the problems can overwhelm  the best of solutions and the best of
people.  You will like the people in Alief.  They are wonderful.



For What It’s Worth

Following up on a suggestion, I called the special education
director of the local school district. Actually, I talked to her secretary,
which was just as well since secretaries usually know what’s going on. She
was able to tell me that the speech technologist was out until early next month,
and she agreed to pass a message to him along with her own opinion of what she
heard. The secretary added that what she heard sounded very good. Indeed.


I think that the Special Education system in general needs
to clarify for its own benefit the basic goal of educating disabled children. Bearing
in mind that I’m really talking about the segment dealing with verbal impairment,
is the goal simply to make those children easier to care for by training them
to select an icon when they have a specific immediate need? Or is the real goal
to eventually enable these children to participate in life? Of course most
people would say the latter is the real objective in the majority of cases. Why
then is it so difficult to introduce an augmented communication solution that’s
arguably a quantum leap beyond what’s presently out there?


I’ve already alluded to a partial explanation. There’s
not much understanding outside of the computing community about just how
powerful and capable computers have become. Moreover, it’s been pointed out
that organizations tend to strongly prefer to stick to established vendors rather
than take a chance on a start-up venture. That’s certainly understandable,
it can also deter improvement. Vendors have an investment in their current
product lines, and a significantly better product automatically hurts their
investment. That’s why start-up enterprises do most of the invention in
any market, they don’t have any sacred cows to protect. Besides, it’s
worth remembering that Xpress It was created by someone who will almost certainly
depend of some form of it for the rest of his life so it literally can’t disappear any time soon.

it’s also worth remembering that even Microsoft started in a garage.

RE: Meeting



I really want to encourage you to try to attend,
because your initial responses below are certain to raise follow-up questions.


Our impression is that little has changed
in the past five to ten years.  As you indicated, people are still looking
to one program to do everything. They don’t really understand that’s
not even practical, because it involves four or five quite distinct computer disciplines.
For a comparison, Xpress It is totally unaware of where its input is coming from.
It can be a keyboard or a virtual one, that means all of those alternative
input devices you mention should work with Xpress It. People in the rehab field
tend to have a simplified view of computer software because the enormous complexity
of how the various levels involved is hidden as it should be. Getting input
from the user is something best left to hardware and the operating system (in
our case, Windows). Attempts by untrained developers to insert software at that
level make that computer unstable and potentially useless for other tasks. The effect
is much like expecting a GP to perform neurosurgery. Input is definitely quite
closely linked to the computer’s nervous system analog. Fortunately,
Windows XP has several interface points specifically exposed to help correctly
integrate specialized devices like the eye readers you refer to. However, the
software specifically required to connect such devices to the operating system
needs to be written by professionals trained to write device drivers. Our contention
is that input devices should never be
sold as part of an overall ACS solution.


The above is very closely related to a
second problem. According to the regional director in charge of ACS solutions
for the Texas Rehabilitation Commission, disabled clients rarely transition away
from the first ACS they receive. You can imagine the serious implications this
fact can have on limiting a child’s future. It’s highly unlikely
that I would be as articulate as I am if icon-based ACS were available as I grew




From: Dianne
Sent: Saturday, July 09, 2005
12:42 PM
To: Scott Royall
Subject: Re: Meeting




I am not sure if I will be able to attend.  You 
might want to know that there is only one Director of Special Education in the
Alief District.  This is the same in most districts.  Each school has
Special Education personnel, but they are not decision makers, though they can
review materials and make recommendations to their supervisors.   Of
course your assistive technology people  would recognize the benefits of
your software and be able to decipher its advantages over programs they
might be using.  So,  knowing the advantages of your program and
highlighting them in your brochure would be important.  It seems you might
want to study the programs that are available and see what they do. 
Perhaps you already have.


I am not sure what software is on the market at this
time.  I have been out of the loop for about five years.  Younger
children do not have the keyboarding and spelling skills to use your more
sophisticated program.  Their programs are usually built around
pictures and key words and phrases.   


I don’t know if you have looked into what is available
through the special education software companies.  As you can guess the
industry changes quickly with available technology.  At one time there was
talk of a program that used visual glances rather than pressing keys. 


You can find the names of all the directors in surrounding
districts on the web.  You might want to contact TEA, Texas Education
Agency, Harris County Department of Education and all twenty Education Service
Centers in the state.


Good Luck,


FW: Hello

I reluctantly decided to forward this to the blog because it is a testament
to the difficulties involved with bringing a new approach to ACS to the
people who need it. Times have been so trying that even my most stalwart
volunteers are being tugged away to attend to life’s realities. I barely
dodged the bullet on losing two of my greatest human assets.

Also, I wanted to reiterate that not all SLPx are computer-illiterate. Some,
like an acquaintance of mine, Brad, are quite competent. Still, the time
pressure on them works in a similar manner; SLPs are pulled in so many
different directions that there’s great temptation to stick with a narrow
suite of solutions that seem to provide about 80% of what disabled people
need. However, I submit that 80% solutions will never lead to acceptable
employment rates among the Disabled wanting work. If disability is imagined
as a multi-dimensional spectrum with mental functionality being one of its
axes, it must therefore follow that those 80% answers will never help those
who fall toward the higher end of the mental axis.

That simply isn’t right.

—–Original Message—–
From: Scott Royall [mailto:royall@conchbbs.com]
Sent: Wednesday, July 06, 2005 3:52 PM
To: ‘Tao Ju’
Subject: RE: Hellon

I am pleasantly surprised by your response. Frankly, I half-way thought you
would bow out completely because of your time constraints. It’s good to see
my guess was wrong.

I had not thought of your flyer idea. It might just work too. Of course, the
text will need to be edited and "punched up" to make its points on one page.
If you or Ming want to do a little cut-and-paste job and see what you can
come up with, great. We’ll meet Sunday at our customary time, 3:00.

Who to target with the flyer is a good question. Some of them need to go to
go those same pathologists and thnologists who have been so resistant to
this change. However, a second option may be to go to the Special Education
departments at the schools. One of our new-found friends, Dianne Williams,
might be willing to share her contacts. As I say, we just need to make some
initial sales to demonstrate the product’s viability.

I also think I might not be the best person in our little trio to initially
contact Lori Sterling at Methodist. Perhaps my mother should do it.
Naturally, I’ll have to still do the demo since I am our one example of the
type of disability best able to benefit from Xpress It. Recent experience
has made me a little too cynical for First Contact though.

Oh, and don’t bother bringing the ancient hardware Sunday.

—–Original Message—–
From: Tao Ju [mailto:jutao@cs.rice.edu]
Sent: Wednesday, July 06, 2005 8:23 AM
To: Scott Royall
Subject: RE: Hello

Hi, Scott

I read the two essays you wrote. I think they are well written and truly
convincing. I especilly agree with you on your criticism on the SLP’s
enthusiasm towards phrase/sentence prediction. I remembered that when we
were interviewed by TechTV guys, one of their first questions is if it has
prediction function. Indeed, people are acustomed to link the disability
of speech to the desire for simple language. In fact, they often forgot
the fact that disabled people are often smarter than they are. Therefore,
flexibility is a major selling point of XpressIt.

Sounds like a good flyer to send off. The question is, who should we reach
out for. Although Ming and I are a little hactic these days with my
parents who just arrived from China, let us know how we can help.

Tao & Ming

On Tue, 5 Jul 2005, Scott Royall wrote:

> What did you think of my ideas?
> —–Original Message—–
> From: Tao Ju [mailto:jutao@cs.rice.edu]
> Sent: Tuesday, July 05, 2005 1:57 PM
> To: Scott Royall
> Subject: Re: Hello
> Hi, Scott
> Yes, I am still here. Just let me know.
> Tao
> On Tue, 5 Jul 2005, Scott Royall wrote:
> > Hello, are you still there? We need to talk.
> >
> >