A Strong Will to Communicate
Results in Successful Use of Augcomm
by Kevin J. Cohen
Denise Ghizzone is ready to work. She has been trying to find a job since she graduated from high school in 1988. Denise says that she always knew that she wanted to work, but she had to convince the people around her that employment was a “realistic goal” for her. Now 35 years old, she was born with cerebral palsy. Because of her cerebral palsy, Denise has significant physical and communication disabilities. Denise uses a power wheelchair which she controls with her foot. Since few people can understand her natural speech, she uses a voice output augmentative communication system to talk. Denise believes that her use of so much assistive technology has made it hard for her to find employment. “People see the wheelchair and assistive technology and they don’t see that my mind works at light speed, that I am capable and smart enough to have a job”.
Early Assistive Technology
By the time Denise graduated from Henry Hudson High School in Highlands, New Jersey in 1988 she was an accomplished user of assistive technology. Several years earlier she had been introduced to assistive technology by way of a personal computer called a TRS-80 (Radio Shack), one of the very first home computers. The TRS-80 had less memory and processing power than most of today’s cell phones. Denise used a word processor connected to a speech synthesizer, in combination with a program developed by Bell Labs that allowed her to scan through word lists using a switch she activated with her foot. This was one of the very first computerized augmentative communication systems ever used. A few years later she received a device called an Epson Speech Pac. This device was portable, could store customized voices, and best of all had a female synthesized voice. Denise was able to program this device to make speeches and talk on the phone. Denise also began using technology to write. By the time she graduated high school, she was using a program called Mindreader (shareware), one of the first word prediction software packages. Mindreader had a dramatic impact on increasing her writing speed while decreasing her fatigue.
Success in College, But . . .
Denise and her team all agreed that if she was to be successful and get a job, she would need to attend college. Shortly after graduating from high school, and with the help of New Jersey’s Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, Denise enrolled in Brookdale Community College. Because she has always had an interest in writing and in working with children, Denise began a program to obtain an Associate’s Degree in Humanities. She was often able to take only one class each semester which made her associates program take over 10 years to complete. “Everybody was so accommodating to my needs,” Denise says, “They had to adapt my work so that I would be able to do it myself. I taught my instructors and other students that even though I had limitations, I could still learn.” After over 10 years of attending community college, Denise received her Associates Degree in English in May of 1999.
“Once I graduated, I thought it would be easy to get a job, but it wasn’t. I thought my diploma would prove to employers that I am capable and smart enough to have a job. Unfortunately that was not the case.”
Learning to Use an
Around this same time, Denise received a new augmentative communication device, the Liberator (Prentke Romich - www.prentrom.com). The Liberator was a far more sophisticated communication device than any system that she had used before. In order to use it, she had to learn Minspeak, a sophisticated language encoding system that allows her to recall thousands of words and phrases by combining up to 3 of the icons contained on the device’s 128 keys. Her new Liberator also promised to provide her with better computer access, allowing her to access her computer directly from her communication device using the same system of input — single switch scanning with the time-saving Minspeak as her symbol system. Denise decided that the best strategy to help her increase her employment options was to focus her energy on learning the new communication device and improving her computer skills. She enrolled in several training programs, hired a new speech pathologist, and focused her energy on learning her technology. Denise learned Minspeak inside and out and was able to increase her speed dramatically. She became comfortable using the Liberator to talk on the telephone, to strangers and to large crowds of people. Today, Denise is grateful for the investment she made in learning her technology, because it has served her on another new device, the Pathfinder(Prentke Romich - www.prentrom.com), an updated version of the Liberator.
Learning to Maximize
Denise also made dramatic improvements in the way she used her computer. She learned how to program her own serial commands and created a highly customized way of accessing her computer through a series of macros. This greatly reduced her need to use the mouse and afforded her more customization than the off-the-shelf solution offered by the device’s manufacturer. Using serial commands Denise could check her e-mail, pay a bill, or begin writing a letter, all by simply activating one icon sequence. Denise also learned many different computer applications, including online conferencing, web page development and desktop publishing. Armed with this new set of skills, Denise again began searching for a job, this time focusing her energy on work that involved helping children, especially children with disabilities.
at a Museum and Libraries
This time around Denise met success in finding work, but not at finding a paycheck. She found many opportunities for volunteer work and she made the most of them. Denise volunteered at a museum, where she greeted visitors, answered questions, and guided visitors through the exhibits. She programmed answers to frequently-asked questions into the Pathfinder’s activity rows for quick retrieval. She also volunteered at local libraries where she programmed children’s books into her communication device and used it to read the stories to kids, using different computerized voices for different characters. Denise also volunteered her time at her alma mater, often speaking at disability awareness events and helping the college create printed promotional materials.
During this period, Denise found sporadic work for which she was paid. This work included acting as an ambassador for the manufacturer of her augmentative communication device and making presentations at colleges and universities. Perhaps one of the most satisfying volunteer jobs Denise held was serving as an online mentor to another young woman who used augmentative communication. Denise communicated online with this augcomm user for a year to help her set goals and achieve them. Through this program Denise sharpened her skills at problem solving and interpersonal communication, while expanding her skills of using the Internet and online conferencing.
Only one of Denise’s many volunteer jobs turned into paid employment. She had volunteered as a therapy assistant at Ladacin Network in Monmouth County. Working in the speech department, she helps teach children and adults to use their communication devices and encourages them to use their devices. She also helps the therapists prepare materials for their sessions. After several years, this position was turned into a paying job. Denise loves the work, but it is only one day a week and she still wishes to work more.
The Job Search Continues
In 2002, Denise changed her strategy for finding employment again. She began spending time putting together an extensive portfolio of her past work, writings, and presentations. She also began programming her communication device to better handle job interviews. She researched the most common questions that are likely to be asked in a job interview and programmed them into her device’s activity rows, a feature which allows for rapid access of messages. Once she had assembled her portfolio and prepared for interviews, it became obvious that she needed to concentrate her energies on obtaining a job for which she was already qualified and could be credentialed. She remained interested in working with children and had obtained most of the requirements to be a substitute teacher in New Jersey.
Denise’s current employment goal is to work as a substitute teacher in Monmouth County. She has applied to the county for her substitute teaching license and has applied for a job with a local district. She has a unique set of skills that would make her a great substitute teacher for any students, but especially for students who share similar disabilities to her own. She is available to work with students remotely, using video conferencing and online meeting tools.
Denise is anxiously awaiting an upgrade to her Pathfinder. She will begin using the new Pathfinder with the Productivity Bundle, a package which will allow Windows CE applications to run on her Pathfinder. She is anxious to begin using these programs and is especially interested in using Excel to view class logs and attendance records. She is hopeful that she will be able to begin working as a substitute teacher soon. She says “There are a lot of unusual things that people with disabilities can do in the work force. Employers need to be opened minded. They shouldn’t judge people by their covers, but rather by what they can offer to the job.” Denise can contacted at email@example.com.
Kevin J. Cohen, MS CCC-SLP is an augmentative communication specialist for CATIES (Center for Assistive Technology and Inclusive Education Studies) at The College of New Jersey.