Jul
09

Is Your Assistive Tech Biased?

Is my assistive technology biased? screenshot of text from phone, sender to PATINS:

Five years ago I was excited to sit at a table with a young Black student and her mother to show her all the things her child using a new robust augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device could do.

She could tell us what she wanted to play with.

She could tell us her favorite color.

When one of her classmates was bothering her, she could tell them “stop.”

She loved it. The school loved it. Mom wasn’t sold.

“It doesn’t sound like her,” she objected.

Both of us knew this student’s mouth sounds were mostly squeals and cries. I opened the settings and showed her the choices: “Ella,” “Heather,” and “Tracy.” We listened to little clips of the computerized voices.

“They don’t sound like her.”

And she was right. There wasn’t a voice that sounded like someone that came from her family or community. Not a single voice that sounded like a young Black person, not on any system I could find. I could program a voice for her talker that sounded just like Yoda from Star Wars right then and there, but a Black American was too far fetched for assistive technology.

Because technology is programmed by people, who all have biases, our assistive technology has biases. And those biases are a danger to the UDL framework we use and in some cases, life threatening.

The speech-to-text software doesn’t work equally across all voices and varieties of English, especially Black voices.

The grammar checker flags non-white varieties of English.

The AAC lacks language from other dialects, cultures, and communities, and if it is there it is labeled as fringe. You want another language? It's available, but no one downloaded the file or attempted a translation.

The visual support makers are absent of vocabulary that is developmentally appropriate for all school aged children, such as words for sexual health, identity, and justice or they are locked behind a wall of “adult only.”

Indiana’s Article 7 Special Education law is explicit on how to figure out if a student can take home their AT:  “On a case-by-case basis, the use of school-purchased assistive technology devices in a student's home or in other settings is required if the student's CCC determines that the student needs access to those devices in order to receive a free appropriate public education” (my emphasis added). 

If your staff refer to a “school policy” or a hoop for families to jump through, such as an after-school training, you’re inviting bias into determining which kids get to talk, read and learn when the school bell rings at the end of the day.

Your word prediction program guesses the words that could follow “He is ___” are: good, smart, and mean, but “She is ___”: crazy, married, and pretty.

As we scrutinize our own biases, inherent tools and instruction we are welcoming into our classrooms and families:

  1. Listen to the people using the technology.
  2. Question your own biases.
  3. Take action. Engage your colleagues in what you’ve learned. Dialogue with the people creating the technology. Good developers are open to constructive criticism from consumers. My word prediction example was immediately discussed and corrected by the company. If they aren’t responsive to your concern about bias within their product, why would you want that in your room?

Our assistive technology has some problems created by humans. Humans can fix it.

Resources and Further Reading

PATINS Lending Library and no-cost training for supporting all students

Critical Practices for Anti-bias Education for K-12 Educators, Teaching Tolerance

Vocabulary for Socially Valued Adult Roles, Institute on Disabilities at Temple University

Ableism, National Conference for Community and Justice

AI is coming to schools, and if we’re not careful, so will its biases, Brookings

Don’t Get It Twisted- Hear My Voice, ASHA Leader

8 Influential Black Women with Disabilities To Follow, Disability Horizons


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Guest — Armen Gulian
Can't wait for culturally sensitive and appropriate voice options for my students of color. Not to mention having skintone choice... Read More
Thursday, 09 July 2020 20:07
Guest — Karen Janowski
Excellent post. So glad this was shared during the AT Town Hall on Race and Equity yesterday.
Tuesday, 21 July 2020 13:52
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Jun
18

Temporarily Abled

Pause your day for a moment and deliberately gather a handful of some things you regularly do every day. Think of some things you do without thinking too much or without putting much effort forth. Making coffee, emptying the mailbox, carrying my own towel to the shower, walking through the front door of the grocery store or doctor's office, carrying an onion from the refrigerator to the cutting board with a knife, are a few such activities that come to my mind. I want you to keep the activities you thought of readily accessible, perhaps, even write, type, or dictate them into a quick note. I'm actually going to ask you to make two lists, so here's a template for you to use, with two columns and some ideas to get started, if helpful.  

visit link for access to 2 column chart for use with this blog
Now, I'm going to make an assumption that many of the readers of this PATINS Ponders blog are educators or other professionals working with learners who struggle with one or more aspects of their daily world. ...some of my most favorite people in the whole world, by the way. I'd like you to now think of why you do this work. Write, type, or dictate the top three reasons you do this work. You've probably stated this many times when people tell you, "I could never do what you do," or "You're a very special kind of person," and then ask you, "What makes you want to do this work?"

Place your second note next to your first note now. Compare them. Do any of the items (activities) from your first list appear, in any way, on your second list (why you do this work)? If they do, you probably already know what I'm going to tell you next! If they do not, stick with me here and let's think about why they should. 

Several years ago, a colleague for whom I have a lot of respect, whispered something to me. She looked around first to make sure no one else was within earshot and still whispered the term to me, "Temporarily Abled." It took me a moment to process her term and while I was processing, she indicated that she was whispering it as to not be offensive to anyone around. At the time I nodded my head as she explained that we're all "Temporarily Abled" in one or more ways, inevitably due to either an accident/injury, disease, or simply due to aging. I've spent significant time thinking about her words since that time and more importantly, why she felt it could be offensive to hear. I do want to say that I understand that disability, for people who have a disability now, is much deeper than using this term or this concept to promote understanding. However, the conclusion I've come to is that there is so much work still to be done for our world to truly be inclusive and there are so many people in our communities who have no idea what that even really means, largely in my opinion, because it hasn't had a personal effect on their life... yet. I do think this matters and I think it has potential for making a difference more quickly, fully and meaningfully including all people in all of our communities, all of the time. 

Moving Image of Daniel riding a dirtbike up steep hill and flipping it over at the top
Seven weeks ago, doing what I love on a steep hill in the woods on my old dirtbike, I completey dislocated my right knee, severing all four ligaments and causing cartilage and meniscus damage. Yes, that's right, the MCL, LCL, PCL, and ACL are all torn! I didn't even know there were so many CL's in my knee! Two required surgeries six weeks apart and 9-12 months of physical therapy certainly have put some things into perspective and strongly reinforced many things I already knew. Several of the people in my personal life whom I consider the smartest, strongest, kindest, and most creative I've ever known, have a disability. From this angle, accessibility and inclusion have been important to me since I was a young boy. However, the inability to walk, carry anything, perform manual labor, sleep normally, etc., these last 7 weeks have reinforced another dimension of my understanding of access and inclusion as well. These personal experiences, while never as meaningful to someone else, are still so important to share. While it may not be your experience (yet), my experiences just might add something to your second list that wasn't there before. 

collage of three images showing three sides of Daniels knee with large surgical incisions and stitches.

Some things I've learned recently and will never forget: 
  1. Automatic or button-operated doors that work are very important. Being non-weight-bearing and havinig to fully utilize crutches, I simply cannot open some doors by myself. While most people are very quick to help, if they are around, I just want to be able to open the door myself! Many places have not had working automatic doors, including the hospital where my surgeon works AND the building my physical therapy is in! 
  2. Knowing where my assistive technology is at all times, that it's close to me, and trusting that other people aren't going to move it, is essential and causes a good bit of anxiety. For me, it's mostly my crutches. I simply cannot move from one place to another without my crutches unless I sit down and scoot. For someone to see my crutches as a tripping hazzard, for example, and move them, is a lot like taking my legs away from me. I compare this to taking away a learners communication device or system for any reason... behavior, battery dead, damaged, etc.  My crutches have become a part of my identity and nearly a part of my body. Moving them or playing with them without talking to me first feels violating. I'm not sure we always keep this in mind when we work with students using assistive technologies. I think that sometimes we feel we're helping by making adjustments or moving things and it might NOT really be a help at all! It might actually change the task entirely. 
  3. High Expectations are essential! Be very critical about ever telling someone that they "can't" or "shouldn't" do something that they want to do! Further, expect that they will do things that they think they cannot! In my case, while I may not be able to carry the onion and knife to the cutting board, I can sure as heck prop myself up and chop it like a pro! ...right along with the peppers, carrots, tofu, and zuchini! I actually love when I'm asked to do things instead of asked what someone can do for me! "Can you come chop this onion." "Can you refill that soap dispenser in the kitchen." I already know that I need many things done for me, but I can totally still do other things and I need to feel needed as well. Let's try to remember this with ALL of our students! 
  4. My "mule pack" is essential to my level of independence. This is a simple and low-tech assistive technology that I greatly rely on. It's a small backpack that I can carry without my hands, that I cram full of as many things as possible allowing me to not have to ask someone else to get them for me. All the things I need daily or that are high on the list of importance, such as my wallet, tools, medical items, snacks, personal care, etc. This allows me to have many of the things I regularly need with me, minimizes repeat trips, and minimizes my reliance on others. 
  5. Steps! There are just some steps that are too high, too steep, or too slippery for me to even consider using.  This means that I have the choice of not accessing that place or sitting down and scooting up or down the stairs...neither allow me to feel dignified or included in that place.
  6. Trust! Whether I like it or not, I simply need help with some things. Our students do too. Having someone you trust immensely is very helpful. Someone you trust to encourage and push you to grow, to assist you minimally enough to preserve your independence and dignity, and to still expect great things from you. This is also exactly what our students need! Thinking about this from the perspective of what I need from my trusted help right now, most certainly provides some guiding mental framework for when I'm the one helping students in the future.  
These are just a small handful of some things that I've realized and/or had solidified for me recently. I'm sure I'll have many more to share. This has truly reinforced the fact that accessibility is so important for everyone, all the time, even if you aren’t one who needs it right NOW. Chances are definitely that you will need something different, something specialized, or just something more accessible at some point in your life, either due to an accident, an injury, a disease, or through aging. The notion that accessibility only matters for a small percentage of “the disabled” is so completely short-sighted and irresponsible to your future self! If, for no other selfless reason, try to keep in mind that the fight for inclusion of all people, high expectations of all people, accessibility to all places for all people is a critical one for more reasons than you might know right now. The loss of or lessing of inclusionary concepts in any amount is a very slippery slope. Work hard, daily, to build a culture of increased expectations and inclusion of all people, never letting that lever tip in the opposite direction. Imagine all the things that are simple for you now that could very quickly and easily be otherwise...what sorts of actions on your part TODAY might better prepare your world for that scenario...what sorts of people would you want surrounding you in that sort of scenario? Speak up when you notice inaccessible entries, public televisions without captions, etc. Learn and become better equipped through the many diverse PATINS Trainings on our Professional Development Guide and our Training Calendar. Trial the many assistive devices available to you, through the PATINS Lending Library!...all at no cost to you, of course! Consider networking and furthing your knowledge-base by attending the FIRST-EVER PATINS Access to Education VIRTUAL Conference this coming November!  



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Guest — Emilee
Thank you for sharing. Being "temporarily abled" is something I have taken for granted all my life. Understanding that I, too, mig... Read More
Sunday, 28 June 2020 21:28
Guest — Daniel McNulty
Thanks for reading AND for responding, Emilee! You and your work in your studies and eventual career will be so impactful to many ... Read More
Friday, 11 September 2020 10:22
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Jan
16

Blue Crayons


12 blue crayonsJanuary is when I go for my annual eye exam, and as a specialist for issues regarding vision, I suppose my optometrist braces himself for that lady who has all the questions about eyes. My eyes are worsening each year, in no small part, due to screen use for work and I admit, due to viewing flowers, babies and political nonsense on social media. I’m working on reducing my screen time, and literally, taking a longer view, by scheduling time to look out the window.


My traveling views over the dashboard this winter are taking me frequently to my hometown of North Manchester. Manchester Community Schools is one of the several districts receiving our PATINS AEMing for Achievement Grant this year, and I have been assigned to help them with guidance and training. I’ve enjoyed visiting, and being reminded of my childhood in this small college town. The sledding hill at 5th and East Streets looks impossibly smaller than when I was 11. The injuries I sustained couldn’t possibly have happened there. The playground next to the little league field at the old Thomas Marshall School no longer has maypoles or tether balls. If you don’t know what either of these are google “playground hazards from the 1970’s”. Mr. Dave’s restaurant remains the same as does their tenderloin recipe. 

Part of the grant for Manchester’s schools provides specialized assistance with finding the right communication device or system for a student with more intensive needs. Jessica Conrad, PATINS specialist for AAC and I consulted with a teacher and speech therapist about a student who had puzzled them for a while. 

The student had a few words and some gestures to communicate but they felt like he had much more to say. Using picture communication had been inconsistent for him. As they described the student I started to hear some behaviors consistent with a cortical visual impairment. Cortical visual impairment, or CVI is where the eye itself is healthy but the visual pathways in the brain struggle to process an image. When the teacher mentioned that the student always chose a blue crayon or marker for a task, I was pretty sure that CVI was a possibility. Students with CVI often have a strong color preference (although it is usually red or yellow). 

cover of book titled Cortical Visual Impairment by Christine Roman showing a student viewing colored clear pegs on a light box

The teacher contacted his parent to schedule an appointment with an ophthalmologist. The student’s team also immediately began to offer the student assignments copied onto blue paper. They changed the settings on his iPad so that a blue overlay would cover the display. They used communication symbols highlighted in blue. 

The team was excited to report after only a couple of weeks that they were seeing dramatic improvement in the student’s attention, engagement, and accuracy in pointing at communication symbols. 

view looking over a boy's shoulder at his iPad and school assignment printed on blue paper.

The brain never ceases to amaze me. As educators and humans, we need reminders of how perception can vary so widely from individual to individual. Whether it is the filter of perception through color or through the lens of long-term childhood memories, our view is highly individualized. Keeping this in our awareness as educators can only lead to better results in our work. The staff at MCS are also benefiting from an initiative in Indiana called Project Success that supports higher academic achievement for students with disabilities. I’m grateful for this initiative and the educators at Manchester Elementary who hadn’t given up on finding out what could give this student a voice, and a means for academic success.

graphic logo for Project Success


How are your eyes? Where are you looking?
How are your perceptions expanding?
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Guest — Glenda Thompson
Interesting fact about blue (or yellow or red ) crayons that I didn’t know until today. Your style of writing is so engaging...tha... Read More
Friday, 17 January 2020 08:31
Guest — Bev
Hey Glenda! thanks for your kind words. Mr. Daves does not serve pie. . . worth the trip though for either the breaded or grilled ... Read More
Friday, 17 January 2020 09:22
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May
29

Gas Up the RV. It's Time for Speech Therapy!

RV Aerial view of RV driving on highway through a forest of green and yellow trees.
My classmate burst through the teal trimmed door smiling from ear to ear. All of us were instantly distracted from our silent reading to a simple object in his hand. A blob of bright red, sticky slime. Another classmate whispered to him “Where did you get it?” To which the beaming student replied, “I got it at the band!”

“What?!” I thought. “ Why didn’t I know about this band? And they give prizes?! Sign me up!”

I stomped all the way home fuming that my mom didn’t tell me about the school band. My mom, genuinely confused, said she hadn’t heard about it either. A few days went by and my mom mentioned it to my teacher who laughed and said there was, in fact, no band. However, the student was most likely referring to “the van”, which was actually a gigantic RV stationed in our school parking lot where the speech-language pathologist had an office. One master’s degree later, I can confidently say the band/van mystery is solved and that student was appropriately identified for services.

To close out Better Speech and Hearing month this May, let's give a shout out to all those SLPs who’ve had offices in janitors closets and mobile homes, shared offices, moved offices (with or without notice), or had no office. You know it’s not the space that’s important, it’s the quality of the therapy provided. You can serve students anywhere because communication is everywhere!

What’s unique about PATINS specialists is that they also work in all types of "offices" as they train in classrooms, schools, and districts. They’ve seen it all and have helped you UDL-ify your space. In the next couple of days, our specialists will be traveling to Summer of eLearning conferences near you, Indiana educators. If you can’t make it to any of those, check out our new Professional Development Guide to request a no-cost training or have us design one for you. PATINS will provide virtual or in-person training no matter the size of your space.

Where’s the most unusual place you’ve taught students?  


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Guest — Jessica Conrad
The speech van was my dream!! I had so many little schools and envied the idea of not having to pack things up. Now I have a PATIN... Read More
Thursday, 30 May 2019 11:11
Guest — Jen Conti
A speech RV is truly ingenious, especially for itinerant SLPs. This particular one was quite a behemoth. I tried to find a picture... Read More
Thursday, 30 May 2019 11:25
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Nov
28

This Blog Post is Full of Curse Words

This Blog Post is Full Of Curse Words Icon for various forms of AAC with the large black font reading
About once a month I have to answer a really important question:

“Why is that word on his talker?”

“That word,” is our euphemism for any number of words: body parts (slang and clinical), fart sounds, curse words, words that are culturally irrelevant, childish, or inappropriate for a child [of his age/place where he is/supposed cognitive level]. And someone, somewhere, decided to program it on this child’s Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) device as if encouraging the child to use inappropriate language.

I get it. When I imagined the magical moment of helping a student find her voice with the fancy new Sound Generating Device, I wasn’t expecting her first two-word phrase on her device to be “poop butt” repeated over and over again for the next three days, either.

I get it, I really do! We’re professionals trying to create engaging and enriching environments for our learners and the literacy activity has been derailed because we taught him how to make plurals on his talker and now he loves pluralizing the word “as.”

We admit we’re impressed, but we can’t let that slide.

In moments of “enriched language” that flusters me I take a deep breath and remember:

I am not the language police.

A larger-than-anticipated part of my job has been talking about cuss words. And promoting cuss words. And explaining the functional importance of having access to cuss words. And listening to and programming cuss words into communication devices. And explaining why adults can't delete cuss words and "adult vocabulary" from a kid's voice. And listing all culturally relevant cuss words. And finding good visuals for cuss words.

If my professors could see me now.

So what happens if she talks out of turn, pressing the buttons on her communication app? The same thing that happens to all the other students talking out, of course.

What happens when she won’t stop saying “poop butt”? The same thing you would do for any other child who says it. We don’t duct tape kids mouths, and we don’t take talkers away.

What happens when she uses swear words in class? The same thing that you do for any other student who cusses in class. We can’t forcibly remove words from a speaking child’s vocabulary. We teach, we consider the variables, and we provide natural consequences. We don’t delete words from the communication device.

It is work worth doing, with clear expectations, communication between school and family (and sometimes with the office door closed and the volume down really low as you check to make sure “#$!@” is pronounced correctly). The communication device is a voice, not a school textbook or a representation of just the words you hope or anticipate they’ll use today. It’s their access to their human right to communicate, and sometimes communication is colorful, shocking, or uncomfortable.

Do you agree or disagree with me? Let me know in the comments below, with any language you like.*

*natural consequences apply

The icon AAC in my title image is from ARASAAC, a no-cost Creative Commons license resource for symbols and icons to represent all words (even “those words”).
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Guest — Alyssa Haller
I read these blog posts every week, but this one has to be my favorite! It is so true, at times hilarious and frustrating! Explain... Read More
Thursday, 29 November 2018 08:26
Jessica Conrad
Thank you Alyssa! I agree it can be so hard to change minds. We need to have patience, compassion, humor, and allies in all corner... Read More
Thursday, 29 November 2018 21:47
Guest — Cheryl Fletcher
love this. Clients will find a way to make “those words” anyway like she and it! We should make a collection of client creativity ... Read More
Saturday, 01 December 2018 10:16
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Jul
18

Death By Paperwork

"Death By Paperwork" in a creepy font and a blood splatter
First: I made it out alive. You will too.

This year I messed something up in my back, and by April it was hard to sit for more than twenty minutes at a time. Every drive, conference or meeting I was engaged for a bit and then the rest of the day was spent imitating your favorite wiggly child, trying to ease the pain. I felt terrible.

Sometimes it got better, and then it got worse. I complained. I ignored it. I tried what I knew to fix it, I asked friends for ideas. Nothing really worked.

I had enough and went to a specialist, definitely not something I was looking forward to. I hate going to the doctor. But within a few sessions, my life had changed.

It was like getting glasses in the correct prescription or wearing good shoes after years of wearing Old Navy flip flops. I didn’t know how bad it was until I experienced how my spine was meant to be.

About three years into my career I had another issue that was a major pain: paperwork.

Paperwork is like back pain. Everyone gets some, some people get more than they can handle. It comes when it’s least convenient and it will not go away if you ignore it. By the end of my third-year the IEPs, evaluations, and caseload documents piled up to my ears. It was affecting my ability to do my job and my family life. I felt terrible. If death by paperwork was a thing, it felt imminent.

I complained. I ignored it. I tried what I knew to fix it, I asked friends for ideas. Nothing really worked.

An administrator gently suggested I see some “specialists.” I did not want to admit that I was struggling to anyone, but after meeting with others who were amazing at keeping on top of it all, they gave me some ideas. They pointed out some of my mistakes, the weight that was causing the paperwork pain, and they helped me develop my paperwork treatment plan.

In less than two months, I started to feel better. My files were in order and I felt in control. By the next year, I was rocking a weekly paperwork schedule and found tools to help me streamline and automate. I was spending even more time working with kids than I was before! It was career changing. I didn’t know how good it could be.

You, dear reader, might be dealing with some pain in your career. Maybe it’s paperwork or a student on your mind who you don’t know how to reach. Maybe it’s a new tool or expectation that’s pain in your neck, and doing your job effectively seems out of reach. Maybe you complained or ignored it. You tried what you knew to fix it, you asked friends for ideas. Nothing may have worked.

If it’s related to supporting student’s access to education, we’ve got a team of specialists here to help.

It might just change your life.


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Apr
06

A Mighty (Laminated) Sword

A Mighty (Laminated) Sword
A preschool teacher consulted with me about a student who was struggling with behavior; one of most intense issues she’d ever seen. The little girl would bite and punch and roll on the floor, and it was a full-time job just to keep her in the classroom. She also had a severe communication impairment. She talked and you could understand the words, but there wasn’t any meaning behind them. She couldn’t tell you about her favorite movie or answer beyond a simple question. For four years, every adult and child had to guess what she wanted to say.

“We’ve got a lot of things started, a lot of plans,” she explained, rattling off all our favorite behavior acronyms: FBA, BIP, FERB, etc. The one thing she didn’t say: AAC - Alternative and Augmentative Communication. The student had a severe communication impairment; couldn’t that be a big part of why she’s having behavior issues? Did they consider AAC and giving her a voice?

“But she can talk,” the teacher said. “The issue isn’t talking, she just wants control.”

Before I could jump on my soap box, another preschooler yelled with perfect dramatic timing:

I don't wanna tootie!” edged with the desperation of a preschool boy who would probably explode if he had to eat an animal cracker cookie.

“This is what we have,” said the assistant, pointing to the snack menu visual. He screwed up his face. “Do you want anything?”

“My teez.”

“You have cheese in your lunchbox?” He nodded. “Go and get it.”

And life went on. Crisis diverted! Communication saved the day! And wouldn’t you know, he was awfully and age-appropriately controlling. It’s communication that gets us what we want: acceptance, love, and cheese. Adults are known to throw fits when they can’t communicate their order in a drive-thru. Imagine four years of being stuck in the Taco Bell drive-thru and never getting to talk to someone. You’d want to hit someone too.

In another preschool, I got to observe a program where AAC was wrapped around the entire classroom. Brightly colored AAC boards were taped to the walls and hung from the cabinets. Every kid, whether they needed to use it or not, had a core word communication board at their elbow and so did all the adults. I sat down next to one student, and the teacher smirked.

“I don’t know if you want to sit next to him.”

Oh no, I thought, panicking, Did he have pink eye? Was I going to get pink eye?!

“He’s our typical peer.”

This little guy, brand new to preschool and a little wary of everything around him, was talking with the communication board like he’d used it for a month. He didn’t have a communication impairment, and he wasn’t anyone’s idea of a typical AAC user. But we’ve all seen the new preschoolers cry and shut down at their first-ever activities, and he was using an alternative way of communicating and interacting with his brand new environment and classmates. Maybe he only needed it that day, maybe he’ll never want to use AAC again, but he’ll remember feeling safe and included in preschool from the beginning. Communication, in any form, saved the day.

According to their speech-language pathologist, Jenni, including robust and thoughtful AAC has been amazing:

“They know that they give them a voice… We've had so many days that we've just looked at each other and shouted, "Did you see that?", "Did that really just happen?" It's been so fun to watch these kiddos learn... I can't believe how quickly she is learning. She carries her board around with her like it's a mighty sword.”

So teachers, therapists, administrators everywhere, (I can’t believe I’m saying this): all students must have swords*, whatever sword(s) fit them best. Make sure they have their swords everywhere. Make time for sword practice. Seek sword specialists, talk to other sword users. Don't favor one type of sword over another, because it was never about the sword, but the person wielding it.

Expect swords to be mighty and all students have strength to wield them, and they will conquer dragons.

*the sword is communication, all types of communication, for those who still aren't into my ridiculous analogies


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Guest — Kristen Baker
Love!
Friday, 07 April 2017 11:35
Guest — Martha
I love your analogies! Great Blog! Would like a follow-up to the first little girl, with the great big behaviour problems...... Read More
Monday, 17 April 2017 15:27
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Jan
13

Can you hear the Echo?

Last summer on our family vacation my daughter brought along her Amazon Echo. She set it up in the main living area and said, “Dad you need to get one of these."

Between my daughter, my son-in-law and my grandkids, it was a fight to demonstrate just what the Echo could do. “Alexa, play Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds by the Beatles." Sure enough the Echo played it and before the song was half over, another request, “Alexa, what’s the temperature?” “Alexa, tell me a joke.”

This went on for about an hour. It was impressive even when Alexa didn’t know the answer or request the Echo said so with, “Hmm, I don’t know the answer to that question." Not many people will fess up to that.

Alexa was busy all week playing music, responding to joke requests now and then and miscellaneous questions to stump the Echo.

When I got home I didn’t rush out to get an Echo although it was tempting. You see I like technology and most of all gadgets, but I looked at the price and thought I’ll give it some time.

Sure enough a few months later my daughter texted me to let me know the Echo was on sale. Temptation took over and I ordered one. It was delivered and I set it up, got it connected to the Internet and started asking requests like I had no idea of facts or music. My wife and I rambled on until we looked at each other and decided we were done…for the moment.

One little caveat about the Echo is depending on what name you give it, Alexa, Echo or Amazon you should be aware that if you are within an ear shout of the device and inadvertently say the name, it will try to answer you. Most of the time it replies, “Hmm, I don’t know the answer to that question”.

Fast forward to before Christmas.

There were a lot of sale opportunities for the Echo models, one of which was the Echo Dot 2. It is about the size of a hockey puck with a small speaker but the price was about a third of the larger Echo. For as much as everyone seemed to enjoy the Echo, I thought I’d get everyone a Dot. It was a stellar idea because everyone liked them, which brings me to the point of this blog.

My son-in-law has a cousin with Cerebral Palsy. She is wheelchair bound and uses a DynaVox device for communication. My daughter asked me if the Echo would work with the DynaVox. If you know me, you know where I went from there.

I don’t have a DynaVox, but I did have an iPad. I pulled it out and installed a simple Text to Speech app and started playing. The first thing that you must do is address the device by name and for me that was ”Alexa." When it lights up it is ready for your request. I typed Alexa and my request, tell me a joke. I took my iPad close to the Echo and tapped Speak and sure enough I got a joke.

I played around many times with different requests and noticed that sometimes the initial “Alexa” command needed a bit more time before the request could be processed, so I added either a comma or two or a Return entry which put a little pause before the request was spoken.

The request should be made with a 5 to 6 second window for the Echo to respond to the request. I have Proloque2Go on another iPad and added an Alexa joke request button to the default  "Joke" folder and it worked as well. Here is a short video of what I did with my iPad and Proloquo2Go sample.

In theory, any device that lets the user create phrases like I had done on the iPad and Proloque2Go should have access to the Echo’s ability to respond. Every device is different and there might be some tweaking to do. However, the independent interaction of accessing endless amounts of information and entertainment at the request of the user is worth the effort.

The Echo can also be linked to control environmental devices like lights, switches, thermostat and the list is growing. I am sure this was not my sole discovery, but if it gets the interest of someone else, it has served its purpose. I will work to get this in the hands of my son-in-law’s cousin. Stay tuned.

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Aug
04

Food Trucks & Snow Cones & Grasshoppers, Oh My!

Food Trucks & Snow Cones & Grasshoppers, Oh My!
I have a slight obsession with food trucks.  I follow the food truck schedule on FB. Then, assume most people around me are just as excited as I am that one is parked in our office lot.  (They’re not.)  Recently, I have honed in on snow cone ice.  I passed a food truck this summer that HAD snow cones!  I felt like I was in heaven. 

When I get gas at the station, I HAVE to end the dollar amount on a zero (0) or a five (5).  I struggle with beginning a project and having to stop in the middle.  I am allergic to hay and as a young child, got bucked off of a horse and quickly found out what manure tastes like. (It tastes like it smells…blah.)
Boy holding nose in disgust
Watching scary movies as a child has left me STILL to this day, always pulling the blankets up past my neck to keep vampires away; and occasionally jumping up on the bed so no Boogieman can grab my feet.  (Yes, I am a grown-up.) As if that isn’t enough, mice will make me find a safe spot on top of furniture; but grasshoppers can nearly make me pass out from fear.

If you have never met me or maybe even DO know me, you probably would not know those things about me.  I’m terrible about talking about “me.”  It’s out of my comfort zone to share things about myself.  This reflection made me think of students in the time we are at now…BACK TO SCHOOL!
Back to school!

As teachers, the first weeks of school are spent getting to know your students, students getting to know you, and students getting to know their peers.  For students who struggle with expression and communication, this can create high levels of anxiety; or students who are nonverbal may be unable to get to know their peers equally.
With that said, while being focused on the implementation of accessible educational materials (AEM),let’s not lose sight of being socially accessible as well.  Here are a few ways to make that happen:

telegami logo   Telegami:  Create a quick avatar, typed or spoken text
 
TeleStory Logo  TeleStory:  Write and tell your story via video

ChatterPix Logo  ChatterPix:  Take photo, draw line over mouth, and record voice

Photo Mapo Logo    Photo Mapo:  Great app to share summer adventures or wish list places

Book Creator Logo  Book Creator:  I feel like this should be a “staple” app; but is great to use for digital About Me books.
 
Give all students that voice for introductions, regardless of barrier and allow them multiple ways to find their own zone of comfort to open up and share with their peers.  Let the friendships begin!

Drawing of boy and girl happy
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Jul
28

Break it… Just Break it.

collage of Daniel, laptop, guitars, motorcycles, and a truck

...Buy it broken. Accept it damaged and worn. Welcome it ripped, ragged, and rough. 


…Don’t just stand there because it works ok right now. Don’t just stand there and talk about the pieces of it that don’t work ok right now. Dive in, take it apart, try something new with it!  For Daniel’s sake, take a chance on breaking it! Here’s why...

When I literally steal a moment away from other things I should be doing to sit in the breeze to assuredly think about the things I’m truly good at; the list is definite, short, and the items on the list are unmistakably bound together with 3 common threads…

The things I feel confident other people would identify as those I’m good at are all things I’ve: 1. Had to learn out of necessity to fix something, 2. Taught myself by seeking out resources and through trial and error, 3. Were born out of deep passion. 

Not many people likely know this about me, but almost every single thing I know about computers, programming, assistive technology, motorcycles, cars, photography, welding, or music, I’ve taught myself. These things, I taught myself because I either HAD to learn to fix problems I created for myself, couldn’t afford something without pre-existing problems, or simply NEEDED to know NOW…before I could wait for someone to teach me!  

When I was 16 years old, I broke my leg playing the sport I was best at. A subsequent domino effect from this unfortunate event proved highly negative to the point I lost almost all of my friends; some of whom I’d had since kindergarten. Long story short, I could no longer march in the marching band as a snare drummer, which meant that I couldn’t be in any other bands in my high school. Devastated to have lost two of the things that I most valued, in addition to my friends, I sunk deep. I bought an old Peavey guitar with the last $150 I had from working the previous summer cutting grass. Not being able to walk, drive, or even hang out… I taught myself to play that guitar. It kept me going and the necessity to have something to keep me going required me to learn something I may not have learned otherwise. Now, playing the 6-string is a return-ticket to a place where I’m deeply rooted and can return, re-focused and recharged to some extent. 

At 17, I was so ready to have my own car. I had loved motorized and mechanical things for as long as I can remember. As a child, I remember very limited things, but I most definitely remember disassembling nearly every toy I owned.  ...taking them apart, exchanging pieces with other toys, sanding off the paint and repainting in differing colors, and sometimes never actually getting them back together. I always felt like I’d gained something though and never felt like I’d “lost” a toy. I always gained the knowledge of the inner workings of my things, which meant so much to me. It was a most certain gain that would apply positively to the next thing I took apart! I’m not so confident my mom saw it the same way as she stepped on parts and pieces of toy cars, action figures, bicycles, speakers, radios, and OUCH…legos! So, I bought my first truck for $700 with money I’d earned by tagging successfully hunted deer at the local sporting goods store in my small town. You’d be accurate in thinking it needed a lot of work.  …work I had no real idea how to do and parts I didn’t have and couldn’t afford. Long story short, I got really good at searching salvage yards, applying-sanding-painting bondo, and shifting that manual 4-cylinder in such a way that I could limit it’s back-firing, which would cause me undue attention in that little red truck that could. 

When I bought my very first computer in 2000 (yes, just 16 years ago), I pushed that poor laptop to do things that nearly made it blow smoke and cry… which in turn caused it to have issues that required me to blow smoke and cry! I spent MANY late nights learning coding and writing script to fix the problems with my Windows 98 installation that I didn’t have a disc to fix and couldn’t afford to buy. I was literally eating macaroni and cheese 4 nights a week out of a Frisbee with the same plastic fork. I had a special education degree to finish and well …that computer simply HAD to live and I was the only surgeon on call!

The same is true about photography (which I learned DURING the professional transition from film to digital), website building (back when we had to do it all in html code), and both riding and maintaining motorcycles. 

Almost everything I know on a deep-understanding, passionate, and highly confident level with regard to all of those things...is self-taught for the reason that I HAD to fix things, learn things, try things, rebuild things, redesign things, and seek resources. These were (and still are) problems that I mostly made for myself. But many kiddos are not permitted the opportunity to create situations for themselves which require such trial and error type of learning. We have been taught to set them up for success, which isn’t entirely bad! But…

While this may sound a bit silly to some, I feel there's no better, deeper, more comprehensive or true way to learn something.  …to fully KNOW something in a way that you feel confident in pushing it to it’s potential, than to experience breaking it …and subsequently repairing it, seeking resources, improving it, redesigning it, and ultimately gaining OWNERSHIP of experiential knowledge. 

This is one area I think we often may fail our students. We care about our students and we want to protect them and keep the space in which they exist safe and secure.  In doing so, we sometimes limit their space to ‘existence,’ which is not the same as ‘living.’ While I’d never advocate for creating an unsafe environment for a student, I undoubtedly feel that without allowing them the dignity of risk to fail, frustrate, and re-build, we are plainly denying them the opportunity to truly and deeply KNOW a thing at it’s core measure.   

We CAN offer that opportunity to students in a way that props up curiosity and DEEP understanding of THINGS in a way that is secure and encouraging!  We can! …and in doing this, we encourage independent people! I recently heard a speaker say something that nearly made my eyes too wet… “We don't have to TEACH kids CURIOSITY...they came to us that way. We have to NOT siphon it out of them!” Thanks @goursos. 

We have to focus more on the result of the 27th re-build, when they finally “get it” and it works, than the 26 times we stepped on Legos, thought about the cost of dis-assembled ‘things,’ or placed our own value of whole-things over the value of BREAKING IT and learning to re-create, improve, re-design, rebuild that’s so essential to our job of building independent little individuals. Independent and proud little faces ONLY ever result from allowing the dignity of risk, which can require a difficult transformation of philosophy about what’s best for learners. 

I’d go so far as to say that many education professionals have denied themselves or have been denied through a variety of reasons, the same opportunity to explore something, potentially break it, and subsequently truly LEARN it by having to re-construct it. Many who’ve heard me speak probably know my “just jump in the shark tank” philosophy.” If you don’t, just ask me sometime. I like to share. 

Likely through a combination of policy, fear, and conditioning, many educators may feel discouraged from pushing anything to it’s limit without the confidence of being reinforced, propped up, and encouraged to struggle through repairing it.   

When we consider the weight and prominence of “HIGH EXPECTATIONS” and “SHARED RESPONSIBILITY” for ALL STUDENTS set forth for us in both ESSA and the November 2015 Dear Colleague Letter, I feel strongly that we often have had safety goggles on when we should have been sporting binoculars, microscopes, and welding helmets! To arrive at achievement levels beyond what we currently are experiencing, we MUST value the dignity of risk in being the reinforcement for teachers to TEACH DIFFERENTLY, and for students to LEARN DIFFERENTLY, which might require rebuilding and redesigning, and we MUST value the opportunity for ALL of our students to feel absolute pride in THEIR confident stride toward independence through temporary downfall and subsequent, necessary, and repeated rebuilding! 

It is only through this process of experiential acquisition of knowledge with an authentic purpose or audience, that one becomes an “expert learner,” which should be the ultimate goal of what we are trying to achieve through all educational experiences. The task, the tools, and the method can be counted on to evolve. Those things will not be the same in 5-10 years, I promise. The desire, passion, and experiences to be an ever-growing LEARNER is what separates existence from living. 

So…Twist the throttle until something smokes. Smash the brakes until traction is temporarily lost. Take something apart solely for the purpose of knowing how it works in order to put it back together BETTER. Sit on the floor and just look at something that works OK as it is and IMAGINE what it COULD BE if you took off panel A  and B and moved some things around between the two compartments or found a totally new component to install. Or …Just simply take it apart, look at the pieces, put it back together exactly as it was….and truly KNOW how it works. 

PATINS has parts and pieces. We have passionate people who want to support your journey.  We have high-fives, encouragement, strategies, data, opportunities to push expectations for yourself and for your students. In fact, THIS is WHY WE are here…we’ve taken ourselves and the things around us apart and we’ve arrived HERE to support you during your experiential road-trip. …just find one of us and say, “watch this….”  We’ll be there. Break it.  


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