“The iPad opens the door for parents to take on a more active role. We are in a new era of AAC; this is very powerful for families.”
— Dave Hershberger, president of Saltillo
In 1996, Dave Hershberger incorporated his company Saltillo. He established the company with a focus on assistive communication but couldn’t begin to imagine what his company would accomplish in the following 16 years as technology platforms changed.
Hershberger fell into the industry by way of a high school job in 1978. Throughout high school and college (he earned an engineering degree at University of Akron), Hershberger worked with a company that developed augmentative and assistive communication (AAC) devices. He struck out on his own because he wanted to expand the population he served by developing AAC devices.
“Once I saw the difference that technology can make in people’s lives, I knew I could never leave the field,” Hershberger says. “I have worked with kids who had very little communication and our technology helps them attend school. It makes an incredible difference in their lives. I got into this field by chance, but once here, it definitely captivated me. And today the technology allows us to do things we couldn’t even imagine back then.”
Why Did You Develop the TouchChat App?
Dave Hershberger: AAC users range from adults who have lost the ability to speak to children who are born without speech ability and need a program that closely mimics language development skills.
I believe that the main key to the success of a communication app is vocabulary: how it is organized, how it is accessed, how it is programmed in sentences and words, and how users access spelling.
Because people’s needs are different, how we use vocabulary varies from one individual to the next. And vocabulary is what sets TouchChat apart.
Some of the vocabularies we use with TouchChat have been in development and evolving for 10 to 15 years. For example, WordPower by speech therapist Nancy Inman is based on making words available through the process of creating sentences — the app and the vocabulary actually help the user put sentences together. WordPower is available on several platforms, but TouchChat is the only app to offer the vocabulary.
TouchChat also offers several other vocabularies, either as part of the app or as an in-app purchase. While WordPower is geared toward users who are developing language skills, Essence is geared toward adults who have lost the ability to speak but have fully developed language skills.
How Does the TouchChat App Work?
Dave Hershberger: The app makes use the vocabulary chosen to meet the user’s needs and allows the user to communicate in several different ways:
- the iPhone or iPad speaks the message
- users can tilt the device so that the message fills the screen and is easily read (good for noisy environments)
- or by sharing text generated in TouchChat via Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, text message or email.
The app is customizable. More than 10,000 Symbolstix symbols are included for customizing buttons. Or users can create custom buttons with digital images, including those taken with the built-in iPod, iPhone or iPad camera.
Files are stored on iShare. By storing files in a private folder on the cloud, you ensure your vocabulary is safe even if your iPad is lost or your iPhone is damaged. (The app comes with a free one-year subscription to iShare.)
iShare also allows users to share vocabulary files via a public folder.
While all edits can be made directly on the iPad or iPhone, parents and teachers who prefer to use a keyboard can also purchase software to create and modify files on a computer.
The Lite version of TouchChat allows users to evaluate the app and to try different types of vocabularies.
We’ve made the app as adaptable as it can be. If users have poor motor skills, you can change how they activate buttons. If users have poor eyesight, you can make the fonts larger. We’ve worked in this space for many years, and we are very familiar with the variations that make AAC devices successful for people with many different needs.
Watching how well kids with autism use recent technology to master language skills is one of the most exciting things about the AAC field in the last 10 years. Across the industry, we’ve had great success studying how vocabulary is organized, making it more accessible and learning how to teach language to children with autism.
I also see big differences in parent involvement thanks to new technology. With the expensive AAC devices of the past, speech and language pathologists took on the role of helping kids through assessments and funding processes. Today, the iPad opens the door for parents to take on a more active role. We are in a new era of AAC; this is very powerful for families.
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