Choosing Carter's voice device

Today we have a guest post from Stacey Moffat, a teacher, writer and mother to three, including Carter, 8, above, in Kitchener, Ont. I was interested in the topic of voice devices because we are pursuing one for Ben. We have abandoned many in the past because we always found the technology archaic and clunky and a disincentive to using. It seems that different programs are popular in different geographic regions. Tell us about what your child uses and why! Thanks! Louise

Choosing Carter's voice device

By Stacey Moffat

I gazed at the symbols on the voice output device shown to me by the speech therapist and I felt perplexed. The symbols were abstract and I found the system confusing.

I was used to picture symbols where one picture represents one word. Nouns of course, were easiest to represent: dog was shown by a picture of a dog and apple a picture of an apple. For more complex words like ‘in,’ positioning was shown with an arrow pointing into a box.

The language on this device was Minspeak. With Minspeak, the relationship between the symbol and the word it represents is not always obvious. For example, on this device the picture of a mountain with the sun going down behind it meant ‘get.'

To me, having a system that used pictures that didn’t clearly represent the meaning of each word seemed confusing. Unfortunately I wasn't given a thorough explanation about how Minspeak and Minspeak Application Programs work. Instead I was told that it wouldn’t matter what system I chose for my son because he would do well with anything.

But, I thought to myself, if I can’t understand the language and symbol set on a chosen device how would Carter, a boy with a developmental delay?

I decided to move forward with choosing a device based solely on size, thinking that portability was top priority for Carter. He is mobile and a very active boy. I wanted Carter to be able to take his device wherever he went.

Thankfully, before any paperwork was put in place for obtaining a device, I travelled to Pittsburgh for a conference put on by CASANA where I attended a workshop about Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC).

Here are some things I learned at the workshop that were tremendously helpful and steered me away from focusing on size and portability and instead toward choosing a system that fosters language development and maximizes language output.

I learned that portability and compactness do not necessarily go hand-in-hand with user friendliness and easily accessible language.

I learned that the more words that are accessible to the user on the main page of a device the better – these are called core words. They are words that are used frequently and repeatedly in the English language (e.g. want, put, get, me, my, here, there, etc.). It is most advantageous for users to have as many core words accessible to them as possible.

It was explained to me that having a variety of pages set up with different themes (a page for playing cars, a page for circle time at school) can become cumbersome to users. Systems with this type of set-up are often abandoned because users get tired of having to navigate through a web of pages in order to say what they want to say. Having several pages to sort through slows down the output of speech which can cause frustration. Never mind the fact that caregivers, teachers and therapists can often spend hours programming devices with vocabulary around specific activities only to have the child use the programmed words on a very limited basis.

I learned that there are just too many words in the English language to have every word represented by one picture. Add to that the fact that not all words lend themselves to being represented by a picture. This takes us back to my earlier example where ‘get’ was represented by a picture of a mountain with the sun going down behind it. With Minspeak certain pictures can represent up to five different words.

Minspeak Application Programs can seem quite overwhelming and difficult to understand. However, if you are willing to take the time to learn about them through direct experience you soon discover that while Minspeak is a language unlike any other, it is logical and well organized.

The clincher for me was the fact that systems using Minspeak focus on language development, not just language output. For children with limited speech that means becoming competent with language so that they can build sentences word by word. Unfortunately this process does not allow device users to speak as rapidly as those with typical speech. However, by learning to build his own phrases, I feel that Carter is more empowered when expressing himself. Rather than being limited to pre-programmed sentences that someone else has put in his device he is learning to voice his own thoughts and opinions, and how he feels about something.

There is an application that allows the Minspeak language system to be downloaded onto your home computer. By downloading the program you can then play around with the system and get to know it and understand it before committing to this type of set-up for yourself or your child. Having it accessible on a computer can be helpful for therapists or others who work with your child because it enables them to get to know the system and also gives them a system on which to model language building for the user.

When Carter’s voice output device finally arrived, it would have been icing on the cake if he'd punched the buttons in order to tell us what he’s had on his mind all these years. Unfortunately that was not how things unfolded. Carter has a lot of work ahead of him. There are still significant gaps in his expressive language. At almost eight years old, he is very much like a toddler learning about, experimenting with and building his language skills.

When I explain Carter’s language challenges to those who are interested I like to compare his situation to that of someone trying to learn French or any other language. Learning a new language requires numerous lessons and a lot of practice. Learning to use a voice device with the Minspeak language is no different.

I’m thankful that I took the time to do more research about Minspeak. Carter is extremely motivated by finally having a voice with which to express himself and he is building his language skills one step at a time.