Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Grant Money for AAC Equipment

Hey Tek-ninjas! This one goes out to school-based SLPs, OTs, and anyone on an Assistive Technology team in the US. 

Are you aware of the CARES Act? The CARES Act is a Federal program providing $390 million in
Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act of 2020. Funds are allocated to each state's K-12 schools in the form of grants to mitigate the financial stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nearly $39 million in federal coronavirus relief money has been released by the State Board of Education. This money can be used to support exceptional children’s programs and to purchase online curricula to support blended learning. 

Additionally, it can be used to purchase educational technology (including hardware, software, and connectivity) for students served by the LEA – which can also include assistive technology for disabled students.

In a nutshell: there is funding available for your AT Team which could be used to procure AAC equipment!  Here in North Carolina you can learn specifics and apply for your district here.  

If you are in a different state, you can probably find application information by googling "cares act funding for (your STATE) school districts. 

Money left untapped goes back to DC. Good luck!!

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Increasing AAC user's independence with modern environmental controls and universal design

 Hey Tek-ninjas! Today I want blog about how a concept designed to support "lazy" has morphed into universal design (UD) AND access.

Some of you may not even remember a time when you had to get up off the couch to change a tv channel. I do. No, not because I'm THAT old, but we did not get a tv until I was a teen, and then it was a very cheap model. Momma-T was a bit of a granola hippy, and was convinced tv would rot our brains! We certainly did not have a remote control on that black and white box. Did you know that it's been almost 65 years since infrared remote controls came to market? These little gadgets were called "Lazy Bones" and allowed us to stay on the couch (so as not to lose a prime seat). Staying on the couch allowed you to dictate what you watched at least until your bigger brother or sister exercised their might. Sigh. 

One inherent problem with infrared remote controls was that they got lost. When we finally got one, my father drilled a hole in it, tied a bit of rope, and secured it to the side table. Rhet did NOT play. Then we started needing even more remotes for the cable service, and tv, and speakers, etc. 

Flash forward to today, and you find that most if not all modern televisions and tv services do not come with an infrared remote, but rather a radio-frequency remote. RF, also known as “radio frequency,” and IR, which stands for “Infrared,” are two kinds of energy used in remote controls to send commands. RF uses radio waves and IR is a kind of light that.  

Additionally, with web-enabled technology, there are so many alternative user interfaces (UI) available now which use voice controls. And this is not just for our tv's anymore. We can connect to the home thermostat, lights, doors, etc. 

In my home any of us can say "Hey Google, play the Grateful Dead on Spotify" (I'm the only one who asks for the Dead though), or "Hey Google, turn on my office lights". As long as I'm within "hearing" of the speaker UI - those commands are carried out for me. OR, I can open the app on my iPhone (Android too) and control all of this. It's pretty Amazing. 

These web-enabled environmental controls are very accessible, and available at local stores or online. They are relatively affordable, and easy to setup. You don't need a specialist to automate much of your household. This access to universal designed access can be of profound importance to many of our folks who utilize communication systems. Leveraging Siri, Alexa, Google, and other smart speakers, users can control so many aspects of their environment. Especially eye-gaze or switch access. 

Historically AAC software and AAC hardware came with IR built in to it. Tobii Dynavox still offers IR on most of their DME. But more recently, folks have begun ignoring the IR, and leveraging their AAC systems to speak to their smart speakers. All without having to be in "line of sight". 

Some folks may have already invested in Alexa or Siri in their home. If that's the case, that's fine. Those pagesets are built in and ready - go ahead and use them. BUT... if you've not, and are considering a smart speaker - I endorse Google because Tobii Dynavox and Google worked together to integrate Hey Google commands over the wifi to the smart speaker system. This means the user is no longer tethered to being close enough for the speaker to hear you. This is huge. Awhile back I blogged about the integration of Hey Google into Snap Core First AAC software from Tobii Dynavox. 

Access to such technology obviously increases an individual's independence. It allows them to do so much. And for young emergent communicators, it can be a terrific motivator to practice using eye-gaze. 

So, I'm unsure that infrared is actually "going away", but I am confident and excited that there are new and more robust user interfaces available which can greatly increase the quality of life for many of our AAC users!

Happy therapy!

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Let your voice be heard, so that other's might have a voice!

Hey Tek-ninjas! I've heard from many of you about how much you appreciate the free, quality webinars that Tobii Dynavox offers at their Learning Hub. I've most recently blogged about those here. A number of folks report using the webinars to fulfill most of their continuing education, from home, on their own computer, learning about AAC! Well, it looks like the company's Learning Team is about to take their efforts to a whole new level!

Tobii Dynavox has announced that they are working on the creation of a Certification Program. Completing a specific course of study would provide participants with Tobii Dynavox Certification. They indicate that their intention is to create a program that best serves "your" interests and needs, and in order to do so, they are hoping to get your input on this survey

This is your opportunity to tell Tobii Dynavox what you want to learn, and what you think other AAC focused SLPs and other professionals "should" know! You can have a hand in determining what a Tobii Dynavox Certificate Program might look like.

So, who are they looking for feedback from? Well, SLPs, educators, and any other AAC/assistive tech friends (hey fellow OTs...)! By the way, AAC/assistive tech friends definitely 
includes parents, caregivers, and even end users!

Please consider sharing your opinion, and inviting invested AAC friends to do so as well!

Friday, March 26, 2021

ALS Social Security Disability Insurance Access Act signed into law

Hey Tek-ninjas! Today I read some terrific news, and wanted to share with you all!

On March 23rd, President Biden signed into law allowing Medicare benefits to start "day of diagnosis of ALS" verse having to wait 5 months for the kick in. This bill, is a true bi-partisan effort from our U.S. Senators. The bill effectively allows patients the opportunity to start their future communication needs much sooner than before. I believe accessing such benefits earlier can not only prolong their life but quality of that life.

Senator Coons stated that “With this technical fix to the law, we’ll finally ensure that ALS patients get the timely financial support they need,” adding that “speedy access to support programs like SSDI after a diagnosis is essential for patients and their families – and one of the priorities we set when we first launched the bipartisan ALS Caucus last year. We must continue to improve the law to make life easier for ALS patients and their loved ones.” 

You can get more information here.

This makes me happy. 

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Free Symbol-Based Supports

Hey Tek-ninjas! I'm going to state the obvious, and say that the last 14 months have presented some new challenges across the country. Many of our AAC users, and other folks benefit from a variety of supports including Social Stories, Picture Schedules, and other symbol supports. 

Did you know that Tobii Dynavox offers Symbol-Based Supports for free? 

All you need is a free account - and it's possible you already have one! If you have login credentials for mytobiidynavox, the eFunding Portal, or Boardmaker Online, you can use those same credentials to log into the Learning Hub, which I've blogged about before. Within the Learning Hub, you can access these free Symbol-Based Supports

For example, there is a whole series of "Back to School" books, stories, and sequences to support students learning through COVID-19 at home and at school. The supports include an entrance routine, books about germs, stories about wearing masks, learning at home, and more.

The 3 pages displayed here are specifically from the Social Story: "Wear A Mask". This book does a terrific job of explaining to a young person why they need to wear a mask, while also recognizing the ways in which it's uncomfortable to do, yet necessary. 

Additionally, if you have ideas of emergency type content that you think might be helpful - please reach out to your Tobii Dynavox Solutions Consultant - you can find that individual here! They can relay the idea to the team making such content, and it's likely that content will manifest!

Happy therapy!

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Casting for the male voice

Hey Tek-ninjas! This is a follow up from yesterday's post. I just received a message that the folks working on the AA digital voice are seeking members of the African American community to participate in that creation.

Evidently, "the casting for the male voice is now open. Please click the link to complete the survey. It should take about 20 minutes, but there is a short version where you can opt out after answering only 8 questions (approx. 10 min). Please forward to any AAC users, families, and other professionals who might be interested in participating. The survey will close on Friday, April 26.

Please share with folks as you see fit.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

This is significant: Meet the 1st African American English digital voice!

 Hey Tek-ninjas! I cannot tell you how many times I've had a family member, care-giver, or device user ask me for a voice that better represents them.... I've had a wife ask me "do you have anything that's... sounds.... less vanilla"? If you've heard the various digital voices they do have a certain "homogenous sound". Until now, I've never been able to offer a solution, as the voices are made by a number of different companies which I don't work for and consequently have no agency over.

Last summer the Acapela Group, who makes a lot of the voices used across multiple AAC software manufactures announced that they would provide more diversity options within their voices. Well, recently Nicolas Mazars, Inclusive Product owner at Acapela Group announced "our mission is to provide a voice for all and we are proud to unveil a voice sample of the first African American English digital voice ever". 

The folks at Acapela note that they called upon African American AAC users, SLPs, and the parents of young AAC users to help create the voice profile using their personal knowledge and feedback. This sounds to have been a truly collaborative approach with Acapela "asking, listening, sharing, discussing, and learning what could possibly be the right choice for a 'AAE' voice".

The new voice is named Tamira, and you can hear her here. Acapela reports that while Tamira is the first member of their family of voices, they expect to introduce a male, and 2 children's voices in a few weeks.

My understanding is that these voices are not ready yet to deploy on devices, but hopefully you will be hearing them soon!

I look forward to hearing the other voices, and hope that this push for increased diversity continues.

Happy therapy!