Scenes From A Youth

This month, I’m handing off the ropes of the Assistive Technology column. Aaron Westendorp is in the transition program at […]

This month, I’m handing off the ropes of the Assistive Technology column. Aaron Westendorp is in the transition program at Courage Center and is an excellent communication device user. If you want to know about communication devices, ask Aaron! He has used Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices all his life.  Aaron  is  an 18-year-old high school senior and will graduate from Edina High School this spring.At Courage, he is thinking about his future and where he will head. He is participating in Computer Training, Ham Radio, Vocational Services, and soon Speech Therapy. One day, he might become a Journalist, Public Speaker, or Disability Advocate. His options seem limitless.   He sees life as an opportunity to give rather then receive.

As I look through the pages of Access Press, I see much of the writing is done by the older, “seen and not heard” generation. I want to share with you my 18 years’ worth of assistive technology experience. I am non-verbal, but I do have the ability to express myself quite well, thanks to technology.

I was born with a condition called a brain stem lesion. This caused my spinal chord and nervous system to not function properly.  As a result, I can’t walk, talk, or eat normally. So it has been an interesting life with a lot of interesting methods of communication.

I mainly fingerspell with my family and PCAs, but with the rest of the world, I use assistive technology to help me communicate effectively. I started out with the gigantic Touch Talker. The interesting thing about this is that there was no computerized voice that came with it. You had to record the vocabulary yourself with a microphone. I was a little kid at the time, so it’s hard to remember all the details, but basically you had thirty or forty phrases to say and that’s it! No room for creativity!! It was a limiting system for my needs and in no time at all, I outgrew it and it was time for a new system. Luckily, things have changed and there are many new devices today.

My speech therapist at the time thought the Macintosh PowerBook would be a good system, along with the communication program Write Out Loud. The Macintosh PowerBook is a laptop computer and Write Out Loud is a talking word processor. Write Out Loud has some built in features to help with speed such as Word Prediction and Abbreviation Expansion. It was more effective than the Touch Talker because you could speak what was truly on your mind in a short amount of time, and I type much faster with a computer keyboard. The system worked wonderfully for a while until I dropped it. Smooth move on my part.

We replaced the PowerBook with a device called the Light Writer. It was a very nifty communication tool, because, again, it had a computer keyboard, but you had to press down harder to get it to show up on the readout. It was a reliable device, until I dropped that, too. Another slick move by Aaron “Grace” Westendorp. The Light Writer is made by Zygo and is still available today.

The replacement for the Light Writer was the Abovo which was a communication device that wasn’t that useful. It was a box with a digital display; no audible voice output, meaning it didn’t “talk.” The other annoying thing was whenever you typed in a letter, it made an irritating beep. I had no idea why it even beeped that much in the first place. No matter what key you pressed, it beeped. I don’t know why it was even invented. It only worked for me for a few months.

Next we tried the DynaMyte from DynaVox Systems. It was a match made in heaven; a great improvement, and I still use this today.  The device was very complex in its programming methods.  It has word prediction, and gave me the option to preprogram phrases and speeches ahead of time for when I need to give a long speech. It also has a touch screen with letters so I can get my point across quickly and without much effort. The only real criticism I have is  it has a special battery only the specific technicians for DynaVox can replace or fix, so when the thing gets broken or the battery wears out we have to send it back to DynaVox Systems in Pittsburg for repair or replacement, and I’m left without any communication method for six weeks or more. I’m not sure why we have to deal with mailing the device to Pittsburg to get it fixed. There needs to be a better system to deal with situations like this. It’s a regular frustrating experience.

As far as the future goes, I am looking into a dual system for computer access and communication. One idea that I have been exploring at Courage Center is a laptop with wireless printing and Internet connection. The system would also be my own voice. There are lots and lots of options and I am just beginning to explore what’s next.  It’s been a bumpy but exciting road.