Technology-enabled communication

I’ve occasionally reflected on the hypothetical question of which I would more mind losing, my sense of sight or hearing. Being a very visually oriented person, I would prefer to keep my sight. But after reading an article in the Wall Street Journal today, it occurred to me that I would rather lose either or both than lose my ability to communicate with others.

The article is about how parents of children with speech and communication problems are finding the iPad very useful in providing a means for their children to communicate. There are specialized devices that can help such children, but they cost thousands of dollars. Now less than a thousand dollars, you can buy an iPad and software that lets someone point to pictures to convey his meaning.

The article makes it clear that the iPad isn’t an all-purpose solution for everyone with speech or communication difficulties. Someone who can’t use his hands well could make little use of the tablet computer. But for a lot of children, the iPad is just the right size, and the mere fact that it is mainstream technology rather than a device made for handicapped people helps such children fit in better with their peers.

I’m very glad that Al doesn’t have the kind of problems that would require that kind of help. Back when he was a preschooler, though, I can imagine how useful such a tool might have been. At an age when most children are chattering away and driving their parents nuts with endless questions (my mother used to say that she couldn’t wait for us to talk, and then when we did she wished she knew how to make us stop), he could barely put two or three words together.

He knew lots of words, but they often weren’t useful ones. He could name every animal in his picture book of wild animals, but he couldn’t tell me which kind of cereal he wanted for breakfast. He often resorted to pointing, which doesn’t work well unless you’re close enough to make it clear which thing you’re pointing at – and when you’re three or four years old there’s a great deal that’s out of reach. Both of us ended up frustrated a great deal.

Fortunately a preschool director was able to connect us with the county resources for testing and working with special needs children, and over the next few years his speech and language improved dramatically. Now his biggest problem is that he has so much to say that he tries to talk too fast and we can’t always make out what he says. Today the school speech therapist met with him and talked about using his “snail voice” instead of his “racehorse voice.”

I’m not that much of a talker myself, so I could probably even manage without being able to talk, but I’d sure miss being able to write if I lost that ability. My emails can get as long and wordy as an old-fashioned handwritten letter – and I don’t get writer’s cramp in the process. I hardly ever finish the stories I start writing – but I tell myself that someday (perhaps after Al is grown up) I will. And of course there’s this blog, where I write about whatever strikes me as particularly interesting that I’ve been thinking/reading/learning about lately.

I don’t care for using a laptop, let alone a smaller device like an iPad. I’m a good typist, and I like using a full-size keyboard to relay my thoughts from my mind to the screen (and to whatever digital storage is available). But if I ever did lose the ability to speak and to type, it’s good to know that technology is making more and more ways for people to communicate.

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