Affordability and augmentative communication are two terms that typically do not ever appear in the same sentence, unless in the negative context (i.e. ‘augmentative communication is not affordable’). This belief is one that is generally accepted as the reality of augmentative communication, and assistive technology in general.
The major alternative/augmentative communication (AAC) device makers have long claimed innocence under the argument that it has been their own research and development dollars that have gone into producing these devices. To that end, they need to keep their prices high in order to maintain a high quality product. Although that argument does have its merits, one has to wonder whether a $3,000 or $4,000 communication device is really a justifiable price. In fact, such costs impede any single user from purchasing such a device out-of-pocket. Instead we, as clinicians, and our clients rely on insurers and grants to subsidize the costs that we incur.
Considering all of the years that AAC technology has been out of reach of the mainstream computer market, it is incredible to see that only in the past year or so, some brave companies have stood up to say ‘We have a communication solution that’s also cheap.’ With the advent of such personal computing devices as the iPad, the iPod and tablet PC’s, someone made the realization that AAC doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive anymore.
One can trace the emergence of today’s low cost computing to the surge in popularity of the netbook (those adorable 9 or 10 inch computers that seemed to go mainstream almost instantly). With some very capable low cost touch-screen computers out there, it makes a lot of sense for individual users to put together their own AAC systems for around $500 or $600. The process to create your own device involves buying a touch-screen tablet PC, iPad, or other device and then the associated communication software. The best part of such systems is that they are not dedicated communication devices, meaning the user can access programs aside from the communication software on the system. Whether it is the adult stroke victim or the autistic child, having a variety of applications available (e.g. email, games, word processing, etc.) in addition to communication software is great thing to provide a client with true accessibility.
Of course, there are drawbacks to creating your own AAC device. Such systems would not be paid for by any insurance company, as they are not dedicated devices. In addition, for less tech- savvy users, it may be a bit of challenge to tackle technical issues with your hardware and software coming from different places. Lastly, even $500 may be too much for many individuals paying out-of-pocket. That being said, most of us are already accustomed to paying premium prices for modern computing technology, so the price of a netbook or an iPad seems like a drop in the bucket.
As a software developer and clinician, I know both the technical issues involved with AAC as well as client needs. I feel strongly about providing my clients with communication solutions that work for them, and a lot of the time that means something easy, portable and practical. As speech-language pathologists working in the domain augmentative communication it is our obligation to provide education to our clients regarding all of the options that exist. Do-it-yourself AAC devices may not be for everyone, but they certainly fill a major gap in the market of devices currently available.
José A. Ortiz, M.A.CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist and software developer in Brooklyn, NY. He currently works as a clinician providing Spanish-English services in a variety of settings, including rehabilitation facilities and autism education programs. José is also the owner of PAL Software Designs LLC, a software company that creates products for language professionals. Jose is a dedicated advocate for bilingual education and accessibility to augmentative communication. You can read more from José on his blog.