1999 Conference Proceedings

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AAC AND LEARNING TOOLS FROM ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGY, INC.

Christina Murray
Assistive Technology, Inc.
850 Boylston Street
Chestnut Hill, MA 02167
Voice/Message: (800) 793-9227
Fax: (617) 731-5201
Internet: cmurray@assistivetech.com

Assistive Technology, Inc. offers a growing line of innovative technology solutions for children and adults with speech impairments and physical and cognitive disabilities. Our premiere products include the Freestyle computer, Companion authoring software and LINK talking keyboard.

The Freestyle is both a Macintosh-based table computer and Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) device in one. The Freestyle supports Universal Access through a touchscreen; mouse; keyboard; switch; alternative pointer; or through voice recognition. Since the Freestyle is a full-feature Macintosh it is compatible with Macintosh-based educational and communication software as well as business and Internet applications.

Companion is an authoring software program designed to help teachers, clinicians and parents create customized user environments. The application uses an intuitive graphical user interface to create and use environments with ease. Companion's strengths include organizing software and launching applications; controlling infrared and X-10 household electronics and appliances; creating communication boards and learning activities; and designing multimedia presentations.

LINK is a high-quality talking keyboard featuring DECtalk speech output. Both lightweight and portable, it is best suited for children and adults who are literate and have the ability to access a standard keyboard. Several factors are critical to understanding the use of the Freestyle and Companion software in clinical, school and home settings. These factors include: the typical users of these products; the specific features of the products; how these features benefits various users; situations or clinical applications in which the products have been used or are designed to be used; and how these products compare and contrast with other AAC devices currently available.

Freestyle

Freestyle is designed to be accessed by mobile and non-mobile clients using an adjustable stand or mounted on a wheelchair using a DaeSSy mounting system. The unit features a minimum of 16 MB RAM and 750 MB hard disk providing sufficient memory to run multiple applications easily with plenty of space for applications, sounds, graphics, movies and digitized/recorded speech. Since durability is always an issue with AAC and computer devices, the case walls on the Freestyle are nearly twice as thick as those of a standard laptop computer and the plastic casing nearly 30% stronger. The touchscreen is highly sensitive to all forms of touch including fingers, knuckles, toes and elbows and requires less than four ounces of pressure to activate. The capabilities of the Freestyle can be further enhanced by attaching Macintosh peripherals through the ADB; serial; SCSI; audio-in; external floppy disk drive; and sound input ports that are recessed in the frame of the Freestyle.

Inclusive and self-contained classrooms, evaluation centers, resource centers, hospitals, residential homes and individual users have purchased the Freestyle as their primary device for communication, learning and environmental control.

As mentioned, the Freestyle is a Power Macintosh computer and has all of the capabilities of a computer system. Since the Freestyle has been designed from the ground up, it also features additional capabilities to address the needs of people with physical disabilities. These unique features include; switch ports that support the use of up to four switches; infrared capabilities via a built-in sensor; stereo speakers for enhanced sound quality and use in traditionally noisy settings such as classrooms; and four additional control panels that allow for more control over display, sound and infrared and switch use. One of the most obvious difference between the Freestyle and other AAC devices is the mainstream look and feel of the unit, developed specifically to reduce the stigma of using an 'special' device.

Companion

The nature of an authoring tool is something like a that of a beast. It can be difficult to conceptualize; difficult to learn; and even more difficult to actually use in a meaningful way. Based on a graphic user interface which associates common graphics with their function, Companion is both easier and more intuitive to use than a traditional authoring program.

Companion gives both clinicians and clients the tools to create individualized activities and environments. With a typical authoring program, a parent, teacher or clinician will create the activity or activity screens and the student or adult client will use the activity or activity screens to learn, communicate or control their computer or environment. Companion supports users being more actively involved in creating their own screens through templates for communication boards, drag and drop capabilities and the automatic placement of objects for switch users.

Using basic Macintosh skills, users can create screens which contain an unlimited number of objects or 'hot spots.' Each object is fully customizable and can be designed to speak a message, play a video clip, start up a favorite software application, power on a television or turn on a light. Any type of graphic can be turned into an object and users can freely resize an object using click and drag or by accessing a set of premade target sizes.

Companion also supports the use of multiple types and levels of feedback. When activated, objects on the screen can provide auditory and/or visual cueing through optional sound and speech, text labeling and visual borders which are adjustable in size. These preference settings ensure that all users, regardless of their disabilities, can attend to the program and achieve success.

Every Freestyle purchase comes loaded with the Companion software. This is important for a Freestyle user because it is the Companion software which makes it possible to use the Universal Access and Infrared capabilities that are built in to the Freestyle.

Companion is designed to be used as a tool for communication, learning and control. The 'Start Up' screen in Companion provides access to several premade activities which will be discussed in the session.

'Talking Environments' is a clear example of how the graphical user interface benefits users with physical and/or cognitive disabilities, brain injury or discrimination difficulties as well as non-readers. Talking Environments uses the graphical metaphor of a town to facilitate communication about activities of daily living. For example a user would select the picture of the library to check out a library book or select the picture of the refrigerator to talk about what they wanted for breakfast.

'Action Keys' is designed to develop beginning number and letter concepts. This activity uses pop-up text and graphics; synthesized speech; imported sounds to teach initial sounds and letter and number identification. Action Keys is often used as a template for introducing new vocabulary words or teaching other classroom skills.

'Home Environments' assists users in understanding the principle of Environmental Control by introducing a typical living room scene which contains common household electronics that use infrared signals and X-10 frequencies. When the user selects the television set they link to an on screen universal remote control that has been designed specifically for Companion.

'Start-Up Applications' demonstrates how teachers and clinicians can set up start-up screens to launch individualized preference settings and desktop arrangements for their students or clients. This particular screen was designed for a classroom with a switch user, a mouse user and a Head Mouse user.

As discussed, Companion's main strength when compared to other authoring programs is its use of the graphical user interface to assist users in navigating through objects and the toolbar. By providing scenes containing familiar, recognizable objects, persons with physical and/or cognitive impairments, brain injury and discrimination difficulty can more easily access the computer to communicate their thoughts and control their computer and environment.

Full use of the Freestyle computer and Companion software requires an understanding of the Macintosh platform and existence of basic Macintosh skills including mouse control; saving and retrieving documents; and navigating through menus. The purpose in introducing these products is to demonstrate the capabilities of an authoring tool such as Companion and the benefits of using a full-featured computer system to both communicate and perform functions that require or are enhanced by the use of a computer.


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