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For some people, asking for a glass of juice is a monumental task.
Individuals with autism, dementia, traumatic brain injuries, stroke, cerebral palsy and other conditions have a hard time communicating with others in the usual way. The two women who own AAC etc. consult with these people-along with their teachers, caregivers and case workers-to find devices and apps that can help, then show them how to use the tools.
Amanda Whipple, 28, and AnneMarie Hamelin, 35, say there are firms around the country just like theirs-devoted to sniffing out the latest resources for augmentative and alternative communication-but they believe theirs is the only one in Western and Central New York.
The two are certified speech language pathologists and work at a local non-profit. Last summer they started talking about launching a business of their own to help their peers sort through what had become an almost overwhelming variety of new tools of the trade. In the fall they filed for a dba and built a website. Today they run the business out of their homes and on the road. New clients come on board every month-schools, group homes, nursing homes, hospitals and agencies.
The iPad and other tablet computers have revolutionized speech language pathology. Hundreds of apps are available for tablet users, and more are released every day. Whipple and Hamelin help families and professionals sort it all out, spending a couple of hours each day researching the newest options. May is Better Hearing and Speech Month, and the two have been snapping up deals on apps to try.
Apps can help users build sentences by clicking pictures and words on a computer tablet. There are apps to boost vocabulary and apps to develop phrasing. There are puzzle apps that appeal to people with limited finger mobility: Just drag a puzzle piece on the screen to fit it into place.
Some apps, like medication reminders, help dementia patients stay organized; others flex memory muscles. Reminder apps use photos to take users through the steps of a task, such as preparing coffee in the morning.
AAC's workshops, tailored to different communication needs like autism and dementia, cover how to find and use apps. Response from families, educators and health care professionals has been enthusiastic. Speech language pathologists tell them they leave ready to get started right away. Parents of autistic children tell them tablet apps break down a huge communication barrier.
"It's very rewarding (for them)-almost a relief," Hamelin says.
In one school district, they met with a student and came up with a communication plan using Web-based tools. His speech pathologist, who like many of her peers has a heavy case load and little time to research new offerings, praised their thorough evaluation and told them the plan fit her student perfectly.
Not long ago, speech language pathologists lugged around boxes, games and workbooks to work with their clients, Whipple says. Those have largely been replaced by online offerings. But some traditional speech devices remain the best choice for some clients; physicist Stephen Hawking, whose motor neuron disease prevents him from speaking, uses the Dynavox, activated by a switch that is operated by eye movement. AAC etc. keeps up with the latest on tried-and-true options like this, Whipple says.
Hamelin graduated from Nazareth College with a B.S. in speech pathology in 2000 and earned an M.A. in communication sciences and disorders at SUNY College at Geneseo the following year. Whipple has B.A. degrees in psychology and communication sciences and disorders from SUNY College at Fredonia and an M.S. in the latter from Nazareth.
Most of their work is done on site with clients, but Hamelin and Whipple would like eventually to have an office with a conference room and a loan closet for donated tablets, so clients could try devices and apps before buying. Joining forces with a game apps developer also could become part of the company's work, Hamelin says.
As new clients come on board every month, the two expect to leave their full-time jobs soon-along with the security of regular paychecks and benefits. But both say it's time.
"I feel like we have to do it now while we're young and motivated-and while there's a need for this," Whipple says.
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