By Rosemary Musachio
Although I’ve been communicating with a manual communication board with letters and words since I was eight, speech therapists have been trying to help me use electronic augmentative assistive communication (AAC) devices. I had never been thrilled with the idea until recently.
Back in the 1980’s, AAC devices had robotic sounding voices that some people couldn’t even understand. The voice made me sound like a teenager from outer space. Now synthesized voices are much more human sounding. Some voices actually would make me sound as I should sound—a sexy woman speaking.
Additionally, since the idea was to use the AAC device away from home, I didn’t (and still don’t) want to use the headpointer out in public for aesthetic reasons (Wearing a helmet with a protruding stick makes me look like I belong in Star Wars!). So, I used my thumb knuckle, which I use to point on my manual communication board, to access buttons on the first AAC device I tried when I was in grade school. When I targeted a single button, I pressed several others with the rest of my hand.
The idea of AAC devices went on the back burner until I started attending college. Since I didn’t have aides as I did in grade and high school to voice what I pointed to on my manual board, I had to find a way to communicate independently. The Cleveland Hearing and Speech Center set me up with a Light Talker. Each button on the device could be activated with an infrared light. Because I couldn’t hold and manipulate the infrared light pointer, a rehab engineer created an iron-like object that I would drag across the surface and stop at the icon I wanted. Tapping two picture icons were required to say a phrase. For instance, I had to activate the SUN icon and the ELEPHANT icon to say, “I’m happy to meet you.” The Light Talker required users to have photographic minds to memorize all those combinations.
Often the Light Talker stopped working, sometimes in the middle of my forming a sentence. I would look helplessly at my listener until he or she finally understood that the stupid thing died. This would also happen when the plug came out of the pointing device. I used the Light Talker only at school, not at home. Therefore, my manual communication device still was more effective for my personal interactions.
Over the years I’ve tried other AAC devices without avail. I tried scanning where the cursor goes through words or letters. When I wanted to select something, I’d hit a button with my hand so the cursor would stop on an item. Stephen Hawkins uses this method to communicate and operate the computer. Scanning is not for me, however. Either the cursor went too slow that I would forget what I was trying to say in the first place, or it went too fast so I felt like Lucille Ball, working on an assembly line in an “I Love Lucy” episode.
I’ve also tried the eye gaze method. I became excited about it because I assumed it was easy to use. I mean, you stare at an item to activate it through infrared. Well, it isn’t that simple. Your eyes have to be calibrated first. In other words, the device has a camera that takes an image of your iris position so it knows where the infrared light is reflected. If you move your head a lot—as mine usually does–the device continues to recalibrate, causing you not to activate the correct item. Besides not keeping my head steady, I also have one lazy eye that made calibration difficult. Consequently, practicing to use the eye gaze device made me frustrated and tired. Nevertheless, new eye gaze systems have been developed that supposedly improve calibration. I still may try one soon.
Currently, I’m trying the “dot” system on a ChatFusion device. This device still uses infrared. Instead of using my eyes to activate the device, I use an adhesive dot. You can stick the dot anywhere on your body that has the most control and best target position to activate buttons on ChatFusion. I stick it between my eyes since that position allows me to follow the cursor on the screen in relations to my head movement. If I wrinkle my nose, my target range becomes skewed.
Unlike the other devices I’ve used, ChatFusion using the infrared dot has worked so far. Head movements do not have to be calibrated constantly like eye gaze systems. The device can be set according to how much “dwell time” you need to hover over an item to activate it. The device—and it goes with any device—should be positioned correctly so the user can access any item on the screen. For example, if I sit too close, I may not be able to target items at the bottom of the screen well.
ChatFusion works better also because I’m investing more practice time. Practicing with someone who I can use the device with to converse engages my attention more than practicing alone. During my practice sessions, I keep telling myself to relax; otherwise, my head becomes one of those bobbing toys in the back of a car. Additionally, I become conscious of how I approach each item with each movement. If I make the cursor slides onto an item from the bottom rather than targeting it in the middle, my head is steadier. The downside is that I may activate other items that I don’t want in the process.
Learning to use an augmentative device takes patience and practice. You need to pace yourself. If you get too tired or frustrated, you need to stop and restart at another time. After 30 minutes using ChatFusion—or any other AAC device—I start losing concentration and my head movements become more random. At this point, I even compose sentences like someone from another planet.
Clearly, my attitude towards electronic AAC devices has changed. Since AAC technology has advanced from 1970’s, I know I will be using a device that will allow me to communicate independently in business and social situations. It may not be Chatfusion; it may be a better eye gaze system or even a brainwave AAC. Once I find the right AAC device and access method, I probably won’t stop talking.