I have always had an interest in Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC). Since I have served many students with severe communication disabilities, I have experienced using a lot of different systems over my career. At the risk of dating myself, I worked with some of the beginning voice output devices for students such as the “Hawk” and “Macaw” when every device seemed to be either an animal or bird name. Does anyone remember the Wolf? You had to follow step by step instructions with sort of a recipe book. The programming was a very repetitive pattern that in printed on your neural pathways. A robotic voice prompted your moves saying words like “Trap” at the end of the sequence. That robotic voice would then invade your dreams while you slept. Thankfully we have come a long way since then and children no longer need to sound like robots unless they choose to. I remember a particular child that liked a Darth Vader type voice. Now new apps make it easier for speech output to be available on handheld devices and iPads. There are so many new ones a person gets overwhelmed with the choices and options.
When the SLPs in my district were given iPads 3 years ago there were restrictions placed on their use. Funds weren’t available for purchasing apps so we basically functioned with what could be downloaded free. I think I have downloaded every trial version AAC app out there trying to find one to meet student needs and be potentially affordable for the school district to buy. Our purchase restrictions are starting to lift so soon it will be time to make decisions.
One downfall with using free trial apps is they often do not give you full editing powers. This means you do not get to try the full capabilities for the educational environment. Last week an opportunity came my way. I was contacted by Therapy Box, a company based in the United Kingdom. They asked me to review their new AAC app named ChatAble. I could actually download the complete program and check it out. As a disclaimer, I am not being given any compensation other than a free download of the app. These are my views alone. I hope they are of value to you as you look over my shoulder. I certainly enjoyed being able to view the whole working program.
So what are the characteristics of a good program for school use. The program I am searching for needs to serve a wide range of students because the school population is ever growing and changing. Any program would likely serve multiple students over the years of its use. It would be best if it could use photos as well as icons. You need to have easy editing of the communication grid and the amount of vocabulary available. It would be nice to also have the written word or keyboard for students who advance to that level. Being able to use the device to complete academic work as well as provide voice output would be a real plus. We have students who are visually impaired and would benefit from auditory prompting and scanning. Those with physical impairments may need a switch to activate cells. Let’s not forget the teachers and assistants. I have seen AAC equipment sit on the shelf because it is too complicated and no one has time to get it programmed for classroom use . It needs to be user friendly but with some safequards so students do not get to edit freely. So does Chatable meet my needs? This is what I discovered.
I found the program easy to access. I discovered a lot just through exploration. There was a quick start guide I looked back on and I learned a few more capabilities but you can pick it up and use the program immediately. A Home display is the first thing to come up. This is a plus. It means that staff will not be intimidated and teachers and teacher assistants working with the students will not need a lot of training to work with the student. It saves staff time.
When I opened up to the first screen I have to say I was immediately impressed. The core vocabulary was easy to view and reach in category files. It didn’t feel cluttered. The typical classroom vocabulary was already programmed in. You could choose the number of cells present. The message window was a nice size and very apparent at the top. It was easy to activate the voice output by hitting once in the message window itself. It deleted easily by touching the black square once for a one word erase and twice for the entire window.
The little blue square below the black square gives access to social media like messages and Facebook. It is also possible to copy and print. This is a good feature for growth. It makes the device useful for completing homework and printing it out. Don’t worry, it can be removed in the settings if a students is not ready for that yet. It seems like that feature could be a good motivator for older students.
The icons on the file folders are not too distracting and remind me of Boardmaker icons. The classroom where I work uses Boardmaker icons so there is always the question if the students will be able to make the transition to new icons. I think most students would be able to make the adjustment. The program has an extensive library of icons. You can import photos or take pictures if you wish.
File folders mean there is access to another window with available vocabulary. I activated the feelings file folder. I often find feelings are the most difficult to depict with drawings or icons. I was pleasantly surprised to find real pictures.
This is not a feature I have seen before in other AAC programs. It would definitely be a plus to be able to take and use your own photos to depict feelings. I went back to the Get Started Manual to see how this worked. I found you could take pictures or get them from your picture library and make hot spots for vocabulary access. You simply put the blue frames around the part of the picture you want to make active. You can basically take a picture of a classroom shelf of toys and then make hotspots for easy access to the spoken vocabulary. I can think of a few students who respond to photos better than icons. This feature would not only save time it would be better for some students to see photos of the actual objects they use. You can also make hybrid pages that combine both photos and icons.
I discovered the arrow on the lower right corner brought up the editing feature as well as access and settings menus. I had a concern that students may get into this too easily. I have had students do some self editing in the past with some interesting results. In the settings, there is a direct link to a help source so I emailed my question. I asked about turning off the edit feature for students who may edit on their own. They got back to me within 24 hrs. I thought that was a good response rate considering the response most likely came from a completely different time zone. I was told it was possible to edit that feature within the settings section of the iPad. I tried and the editing feature became grayed out and not accessible. I turned it back on because I wanted to try it out.
The little green box in the lower end of the curve is the edit mode. It will open up the edit feature for any window you have open. Here is the hobby window with the edit activated.
As you can see along the top there are a variety of things you can do in the edit mode. This changes somewhat depending on if you are using a photograph with hot spots or a display with icons. You can take and use pictures from your gallery or choose symbols from the Symbol library. You can record music, voices, or add text to speech.
The little red wheel is the settings access. It is possible to adjust direct touch access, voice output, scanning and auditory support when a frame is highlighted. There are 10 voices to choose from. This is actually closer to 2 males and 2 females with American accents unless your student wants an accent. I tried to make a younger childs voice by changing the speed and the pitch on the voices . This was an old trick I use to use to get a kid voice. I thought the voices still sounded like older children to me but maybe with more tweaking it would still work.
The yellow arrow opens up a variety writing methods to include a keyboard and writing with a finger or stylus. It also has a text to speech capability. This means the program can be used to produce written work that can be printed if the blue button on the message board is available for email or printing.
The note pad looks like this. You can place your written word into the message window and it will be spoken with the message window activation. You can also send messages in email.
As you can see, ChatAble is quite remarkable and meets most of what I am looking for. I haven’t found any others to be quite as user friendly. This is our last full week of school before Summer break and I am sad that I will need to wait until next Fall to test it out with students. I can think of a few that could use it. I will be showing it to the Assistive Technology Department because I feel it would be on the top of the list. When I looked at the Therapy Box website it looked like they gave as much as 50% off the cost to school districts. I think this would make it quite reasonable compared to other programs in the same range of capabilities.