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Laura F. Meyers, Ph.D.
Marina Del Rey, CA
North Los Angeles County Regional Center
Dr. Laura Meyers is a linguist who has researched the field of technology-enhanced spoken and written language learning and use for over twenty years. She describes the theoretical and research bases for her methods of teaching children and adults the spoken and written language skills they need to be effective users of assistive technology. In her research, she has found that most people who need to use assistive technology have spoken and written language deficits, because their disabilities block participation in the processes of normal language learning. As a theoretical linguist, her goal for her students is to teach them how to access the full generative power of spoken and written language through assistive technology. To do this, they must build internal grammars for spoken and written language, by linking their own personal meaning to the signals of speech and text, using technology. During her teaching sessions, the students choose the content (meaning) of what they want to say. Once the content is established, Meyers teaches how to get that meaning into grammatical sentences on their devices. Two case studies establish the effectiveness of the teaching methods, along with videotapes of the students' progress.
Ryan Duncanwood, who is nonspeaking due to cerebral palsy, was almost ten years old when Dr. Meyers started working with him. In school, he was given picture boards and message boards to say extremely limited things like "hello", "good-bye" and 'I eat chopped spinach". When he met Meyers, he had been given a total of only 132 words to say on all his communication boards. Other children that age have vocabularies of thousands of words and can combine them to form any new sentence they need. Duncanwood asks teachers to assume that children who cannot talk want to say all the same things that children with speech want to say. He wants teachers to give children the technology they need to have a voice and the spoken and written language teaching they need to use it. In fifth grade, he was still being taught upper and lower case letters. Although he knew them when he was three years old, he could not demonstrate his knowledge without technology. His computer-writing goal for the year he met Meyers was to copy one paragraph from the blackboard onto a computer with no mistakes. He was so bored he was labeled "resistant to writing".
During his first assessment session with Meyers, Ryan typed his own first meaningful sentence on a computer with speech output, "Ryan Duncanwood love Dollie". He needed only one correction, to add the third person marked -s to the verb. Working with Meyers, Duncanwood began writing a book about his life, one page per teaching session, typing on a computer with speech output. Meyers asked him whether he wanted her to teach him age-appropriate language structure and literacy skills and to tell him when he was wrong. Ryan asked her to help him improve his language skills and correct his grammatical and spelling errors. With teaching, he printed out a perfect paragraph at the end of each session. He became functionally literate after only 48 individual teaching hours.
During this time, Duncanwood bought a small communication device that allowed him to type and communicate with speech output. Soon, spelling was too slow for him. He could only type four words a minute. He was too slow to keep people in conversation with him. He decided to learn Minspeak on a Liberator. After 72 hours of teaching, he could talk at 18-24 words per minute using Minspeak combined with spelling. He could combine icons with categories to activate words. For example, the apple icon plus noun is "food", apple plus verb is "eat" Apple plus adjective is "hungry". He could store a food message under Apple, like "Please get my lunch". He still needed to spell several words in most sentences, because he always had so many new and different things he wanted to say. A software upgrade that gave him Word Prediction combined with Minspeak let him speak at an even faster rate. He starts to spell words he needs and the software gives him a display of words. He doesn't have to type the end of the word, just choose the correct word from the display. His communication device allows him to store speeches in notebooks like the one he is giving during this session and say them to people, one sentence at a time. He currently uses a Pathfinder communication device.
Duncanwood graduated from high school with a full diploma and is now attending community college. He won the Westside Center for Independent Living Award in 1996, when he was only 21 years old. His eloquence while using assistive technology helped earn him the award. He lives independently with the help of support staff. He works as a paid consultant, giving talks and workshops at conferences and in college classes about the importance of assistive technology, freedom of speech, disability rights and independent living.
Randy Horton was 39 years old when he started working with Dr. Meyers. He had spent most of his life unable to communicate clearly. Most people cannot understand him when he talks, because of his cerebral palsy. Even his wife as to work very hard to understand his speech- after 13 years of marriage.
Because of his disability, Horton could not write with his hands. He needed technology to be able to write. Like all people without disabilities he needed to be taught to how to write, while he was writing. He could not just listen and watch and learn how to write. People without disabilities receive 12 years of writing and language teaching during school. He had next to none. He was in totally segregated, special education classes during elementary and high school. He will never forget the one teacher, Robert Lee, who made his first letter and word board. He could point to words to communicate. This teacher took the time to communicate with him; no one else ever did. He learned to spell a little, but mainly he point to words.
His first communication device was in the Dark Ages, more than twenty years ago. He was in high school. The device was very small, about five inches long, with a tiny standard keyboard and a very small display. He couldn't see what he was typing on the display. He had to type every word of every message. His literacy skills were very limited and his language structure was often highly ungrammatical. He stopped using this device because it was impossible to carry on conversations with it.
In 1992, he was assessed by a team. He was given 30 minutes to try three devices. He chose the device that he had seen Duncanwood use. What he didn't know was that Duncanwood had decided that this device was obsolete. The center that gave him that device provided him with one two-hour session to learn how to use it. He had problems. Again, this was a spelling device and he had very limited literacy skills. The speech output on the device was too hard to understand. The only way to make it better was to store many words as speech exceptions, hiding the pronunciation behind the spelling. This was beyond him and his wife. He threw it into the closet. He relied on his wife to interpret his very unclear speech of the next seven years.
When Horton was 39 years old, well beyond the critical period for language learning, Meyers did an assistive technology assessment with him. Instead of testing him, she gave him more eight hours of teaching during the assessment. She taught him language, phonics, spelling and how to use the devices. She documented his progress. and asked for 48 hours of teaching time in her recommendations. Horton says that people who need AT must fight for the right to enough teaching hours for all AT users.
During the teaching sessions, Meyers taught spoken and written language and device use while Horton was creating messages and notebooks he needed. Horton was asked to report on the Pittsburgh Employment Conference to his regional center and to his church. It took about 10 hours to create what he needed. He made many grammatical errors without hearing his mistakes. Meyers taught him how to correct them. Gradually, he began to hear his errors and correct them. He started spelling correctly, the first few letters, then, the entire word. Horton created talks that he presented at this conference last year and at ISAAC in Washington, D.C. Videotapes of sessions showed that he had learned to construct grammatical, age-appropriate sentences on his own and that he could spell and use word prediction for almost all spelled words that he needed.
Duncanwood and Horton asked Meyers to present with them on the topic of teaching. They strongly believe that teaching is the solution that gives people who use assistive technology a full voice.
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