The iPadification of Communication

Remember Apple’s video about how the iPad is helping Autistic kids?

Ignoring the fact that a video about selling iPads giving people a voice doesn’t actually have anyone using that voice to talk about the issue (it has a parent, a clinician, and a product developer, but doesn’t use a person with autism except to give you something to look at – our words are obviously not as important), there’s an issue here.

The iPad isn’t a good tool for this.

Yes, I know I just pissed a lot of people off.  But, really, the iPad has some problems here. Big ones. Ones that can prevent communication.

I will say I recognize that there are tons of people communicating using the iPad, and it’s a wonderful, wonderful thing for those it works well for.  It’s also got a ton of advantages over other technology, like cost ($500 instead of $5,000 or $15,000), easy availability (where can’t you buy an iPad in the world?), lots of accessories, choice of different AAC software, relatively easy to write software for, nice big screen, non-stigmatizing appearance, and it’s easy to change things if it turns out the software is wrong for the user. It’s opened up AAC to tons of people that wouldn’t qualify for a funded device.

But, often, it’s chosen because it’s cheap and available, not because it’s the right solution.

And it’s often chosen because other options suck too.  Other solutions are expensive, ugly, hard to replace or repair, lock you into a specific language system, and are inflexible as the person gains more language ability. Too many have features like secret recording modes and configuration locks that prevent a user from truly having a personal voice.  So I’m not exactly in support of other devices.

But I’m definitely against the idea that a communication device should look like an iPad.

Here’s what I see missing – both from the iPad and from most of the dedicated devices (in some cases, all of the devices):

  • Durability. Seriously who doesn’t think a 7 year old will drop the thing? Heck, many adults I know would drop and break it! I’ve seen kids not allowed to take their device with them to play – because it might break. Well, duh – give a 10 inch piece of glass to an active kid, it probably will break.
  • Outdoor Usage. Fortunately the iPad wouldn’t work well outdoors anyhow, since it’s hard to see the screen. So I suppose keeping it away from play makes sense in that way. Okay, it doesn’t. People need to communicate everywhere, not just in classrooms and at home.
  • Charging. Watch someone without great motor skills try to plug in the charger to any speech device made. Why can’t there be a drop-in charger that self-aligns for a communication device? I know of none that are easy for someone without good fine motor skills to charge. And that seems important for an electronic device.
  • Feedback to the user. I talked yesterday about how the click of a traditional keyboard helps me communicate. I doubt I’m the only one.  Everyone is different, but if someone needs loud feedback to unfreeze them, the iPad isn’t it. Likewise, some people need an input method other than touching a touch screen – some of these have options on the iPad, some don’t.
  • Speaking of volume, volume. It’s nice to have a loud enough communication device to be heard in a loud room. Without having to put it on life support by taking along a lot of speakers and such. Tons of devices have this problem.
  • Pronunciation – I’ve not found a speech application in iPad that has two features I consider essential, particularly for a literate user: spell check confirmation (to avoid ugly pronunciation, it should prompt me when I hit speak to correct misspellings – not just highlight my words with squiggles, although many programs don’t even do that) and pronunciation overrides.  I should be able to say DOT is “Dee, Owe, Tee”, not pronounced like dot.  But, beyond this, I should be able to specify these by phonemes, not by just spelling out words as they sound.  Give me access to all the sounds, not just the sounds that I can write phonetically.  And while you are at it, give me a mode to speak long strings of numbers (like a phone number) or to spell out to someone a word.  I could do phonemes and many other things with Dectalk 20 years ago. Why not now (I can tell you: it’s hard to put into an API, although MS managed to do so just fine – why can’t Apple)? Hell, you could sing with Dectalk.
  • Speaking of voices…voices…  This is one thing that is good with the Android devices in particular – it’s easy to replace the system voice.  But there’s a lot of crappy nice sounding voices out there.  There’s a difference between a voice that’s easy to understand and a voice that sounds natural. Sometimes you can do both (I like AT&T Natural Voices still, but there are others). But there are plenty that sound good but suck for understandably.

These seem like reasonable things to want changed. But of course in the race to talk about how iPads are wonderful (and I do recognize they often are), we’re short-changing ourselves and people we care about if we don’t think of the ways they fall short.

We short change when we don’t think about what the person really needs, but think instead about what can be paid for easier.  Please don’t do that to yourself! Keep trying to get the right system for yourself, even if you don’t know how you’ll pay for it. Your voice is worth moving heaven and earth for. You have something worth saying.


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