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Interview With Joe Swenson President Of DynaVox

Read more about our life in the new book Brains, Trains & Video Games: Living The Autism Life available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble!

 
The Autism Life.com presents an interview with Joe Swenson – President of DynaVox Systems. DynaVox is the leading manufacturer of speech generating devices and communication software and makes such devices as the MightyMo, Series 4, Lightwriter, and now the V. For a full list of the devices made by DynaVox please I would encourage everyone to visit the DynaVox website.
 

Alicia: Joe, it’s such an honor to be interviewing you. As you know, my son uses a DynaVox MT4, one of your company’s products. My experience with my son and this device have completely changed the way I look at what my son can do and just how great of an impact a device like the MT4 can have on a child or an adult. How did you come to be the President of DynaVox? What experiences have you had with augmentative communication before becoming the President of DynaVox and how has that changed the way you view augmentative communication?

 
Joe: I spent the first 20 years of my career working with the Hill-Rom Company, the world’s leading supplier of hospital patient room equipment and decubitus ulcer products. In my last major assignment at Hill-Rom I was the President of their European Division based in Paris, France. In October, 2001, I got a phone call from someone doing an executive search to find a replacement for the President and co-founder of DynaVox Systems, Tilden Bennett, who was planning to retire soon. Until that phone call, I had never heard of Augmentative Communication. When I visited the Company I was blown away with their incredible products and societal mission. I officially started working with DynaVox in January, 2002. 
 
I always felt good about the work I did at Hill-Rom – improving the lives of patients and nurses – but, in hindsight, those feelings of contribution pale when you compare them to the opportunity to give someone the gift of communication. 
 
Alicia: I polled around a little and I asked parents, teachers, and SLPs, “If you could ask the president of DynaVox one thing, what would it be?” The number one question was, “Why are devices so expensive?” I think the reason why this is the number one question is because computers, printers, PDAs, and other electronic equipment are so widely available these days. I think we all remember when the VCR was a several hundred dollar investment or the DVD player was the new kid on the block and also started out at more than what most folks could afford. Just yesterday, I bought a new DVD player for $29.00 so prices have come down a long way. I’m definitely not comparing my new DVD player with my son’s DynaVox MT4, but I think this is why parents and others ask this question so often. How is the process for creating voice output technology different than other types of technology? Could you explain, without getting too technical, how DynaVox products are researched, developed, and manufactured and how this affects the price tag for voice output devices?
 
Joe: Expensive? Who says AAC devices are expensive? We’re talking about the gift of communication! Who can put a price tag on what should be an unalienable right – the ability to communicate with a parent, a friend, a school teacher, a doctor?
 
I readily admit there is a very high cost of doing business in Augmentative Communication. For example, DynaVox has a team of 17 people dedicated to helping families find funding for devices. We have another 17 people dedicated to providing a lifetime of Technical Support (1-866-dynavox) for every device we sell – at no charge to the client. DynaVox provides hundreds and hundreds of local training sessions across the United States for new and advanced device users. Lastly, the AAC market is so small, that it’s very expensive to provide direct sales consultant coverage across the USA. We know that less than 10% of the children who would benefit from a DynaVox-like device ever get a device, and for the adult population, the penetration is even worse. I don’t know how the AAC Community would break through these barriers without the support of the local sales consultants.
 
Lastly, to be successful, an AAC device has to be able to handle the countless different access methods, cognitive capabilities, language skills, etc. It makes for a very complex product to develop and support and that’s why they are so incredible!
 
 
Alicia: What makes a DynaVox a DynaVox?  In other words, what type of system do the DynaVox devices utilize to help a child or an adult communicate?
 
Joe: Let’s look at the new V family of products that was introduced to the market in January, 2007. The V facilitates fast, functional communication and expression for all essential life activities in any setting, for any age and for all abilities. Augmented Communicators can learn to use the V within minutes, yet the device has the flexibility and power to grow with the individual for years.
 

Key V Features:
·        Rate Enhancement Features
·        InterAACT page-sets – supporting both language use & literacy with a solid framework, structure & vocabulary
·        AT&T Natural Voices
·        Forward-firing speakers with increased output
·        Email (free DynaVox account)
·        Text messaging (via Bluetooth)
·        Internet Access
·        Environmental Control
·        Drag-n-Drop Editing
·        Boardmaker Bridge
·        Digital Image, Video & Sound Import
·        Speaking Dynamically Pro Included
·        On-Device How-To Video Tutorials
·        Remote Technical Support
·        Internet-Based Upgrades.
 
Alicia: I have to say that I recently got an opportunity to see the V. WOW is just about all that I could say the entire time I got to play around with the device. It’s as if they read my mind on all the things I wanted in a communication device for my son. The use of the visual scene graphic and incorporating that with the buttons and symbols is something I’ve been trying to accomplish on the MT4 through digital photographs and active areas. The first thing I thought was that this would have saved me hours of programming to create visual scene displays for Ewan! The use of these graphics and incorporating that with the buttons and symbols will help all levels of communicators and that includes children like Ewan who often fail to give important information while he’s communicating—i.e. a point of reference. I can see so many applications for the V with autistic children. There is a video capability that would be INVALUABLE for a child, teen, or adult with autism that needs help with sequencing, with social skills, with appropriate body language, what to do in an emergency, and more. What better way for a child to access a quick video clip when getting ready to meet new people that shows him or her what to do when someone holds out their hand to shake hands and also provide all the appropriate vocabulary or quick phrases such as Hi, my name is… Every type of book format social story could be incorporated in video fashion in conjunction with this powerful communication device. There’s not enough space in this article for me to say all that I love about the new V, but suffice to say, it’s everything I would want in a communication device for Ewan and more. The V is absolutely amazing.
 

 

Alicia: Our experience with Ewan has shown that whenever possible, using the device has to be functional and fun. Of course, Ewan was only three when he first received his device and not in school and I know that not everything can be both functional and fun! How is the process of using augmentative communication different for a young child versus a school-age child versus an adult? 
 
Joe: There can be a lot of similarities in using AAC with all of these groups.  Basically, everyone needs to see the purpose of using the device and this is often done using fun and functional activities.  The specific activities will differ from age to age and person to person as will the different skills that need to be learned (e.g., symbols, language structures, literacy skills). But the repetition, modeling, and other processes will be similar.  Of course, there can also be a lot of differences.  An adult who has good language skills and understands the mechanics of communication who has lost the ability to speak due to ALS, for example, has different things to learn than children who are just learning language and communication skills and having to learn how to use a device at the same time.
 
 
Alicia: Is there a rule for being ‘too young’ or ‘too old’ to begin using an augmentative communication device? 
 
Joe: Not at all.  In the past, 5 or 6 was the youngest age people would really consider for a device.  More recently, that age had dropped to 3 or 4.  Janice Light’s research has demonstrated success using high tech AAC with kids as young as 9 or 10 months.  There is no upper age limit either.
 
 
Alicia: The Autism Life.com obviously is a website devoted to children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.  Augmentative communication strategies used with these children can mean anything from sign language to PECS to photos to devices both low-tech and high-tech.  How is DynaVox targeting the needs of children with Autism specifically?  What products do you feel work best with children with Autism or is there just no hard and fast rule?  Is it all dependent on each individual child’s needs and abilities? 
 
Joe: DynaVox targets the needs of children with Autism by addressing areas that are typically either needs or strengths.  For example, many children with autism have strong visual skills and are better visual learners than auditory learners.  Paring symbols with words on the device can tap into this strength.  Using visual scenes (digital or drawn images as the background of a page), like we do so much on the V and Vmax, can also help tap into this visual strength by providing lots of information about the context (e.g., people, places, and things) of an activity or environment.  We also try to provide appropriate pages to address positive behavior support strategies that are often used with children with Autism (e.g., schedules, if… then, contingency maps, social stories….).  Because there is no one description of children with Autism, there is no way to say which products work best with children with Autism.  Some respond well to keyboard based devices.  Others respond better to dynamic display devices.  Some do better with digitized speech.  Others do well with synthesized speech.  The fact that we have appropriate pages and vocabulary to meet the needs of any child along the continuum of communication independence means that we can match the specific characteristics of many different individuals.
 
 
Alicia: How is the process of getting an augmentative communication device like those that DynaVox makes different for a child with Autism versus other disorders that cause communication breakdowns?  How is implementing and using these augmentative communication devices different for a child with Autism? 
 
Joe: The only difference in getting an AAC device may come if the child’s insurance does not cover speech and language services for individuals with autism.  If this is the case (and I’ve seen it happen only occasionally) the child would have a hard time accessing an evaluation to get the recommendation for a device.  The basic premise for implementing an AAC device is to determine what the individual needs to be able to do and then provide many opportunities to do those things in meaningful, functional opportunities.  In this respect, implementing AAC is no different for a child with autism than with any other child.  Perhaps some of the strategies used would be different, but that would be based more on how the child learns rather than the child’s specific diagnosis.
 
 
Alicia: Our experience with DynaVox has been amazing. I can attest to the quality and durability of these devices. Of course, I’ve also had to call technical support before and most people will agree that DynaVox has an excellent customer support department. What do you think makes DynaVox products so popular? How much work goes into providing the level of customer support that DynaVox has?
 
Joe: I really think it is a combination of things that make DynaVox so strong. First and foremost, I believe we have the best product on the market. Easy to learn and, yet, the device will grow with the augmentative communicator for many years. Secondly, I believe we have the best back-office support in the industry from our on-line Technical Support team to our 24/7 Knowledge Base to our Funding Specialists. Going forward, I think people are also going to love the remote technical support function that is now available on the V products that allows a Technical Support team member to remotely solve device questions with even less hassle.
 
 
Alicia: What opportunities does DynaVox have for parents, teachers, and therapists to learn about devices, learn about using a device, or to find out how to incorporate a device at home, in the classroom, or in the clinic?
 
Joe: There are lots of opportunities to learn about DynaVox devices on our website – test the new voices, read about the new V products, watch our outstanding user testimonials, etc. But the best solution is still to simply give DynaVox a call and ask for help and we can help step you through the process.
 
 
Alicia: What are the biggest mistakes that a parent, teacher, or therapist makes when it comes to using a voice output device with a child? 
 
Joe: One mistake is starting to program the device without having a clear idea of the end goal.  This can result in more work (programming and then reprogramming or programming something that already exists somewhere else on the device) and pages that are not organized well.  A second mistake is spending too much time programming new vocabulary and not spending enough time teaching individuals how to use the vocabulary that is already on the device.  A third mistake is not doing enough modeling with the device as a teaching strategy. 
 
 
Alicia: As I know from experience, getting a voice output device can change your child’s life, and really the entire family’s life.  Yet this process is not always easy.  Many parents and caregivers find a few roadblocks along the way in terms of really making a device a part of a child’s life.  Certainly, programming in specific information, photos, symbols that are unique to each child helps but there’s always something we, as parents, can learn from each other.  Does DynaVox have any kind of parent to parent mentoring system for those with a device? 
 
Joe: We don’t have any formal mentoring system although I’m sure every sales consultant has families that they have connected.  This sometimes happens on Virtual Classroom sessions.  We also have discussion boards on our website where parents have informally met other parents.
 
 
Alicia: Our philosophy about our son’s device was to consider it as basically a part of him, like a third arm almost! In fact, when we leave the house, the device goes to. So we often get questions from those in the community about what that ‘neat purse’ I’m carrying is. I’m not surprised that most folks haven’t seen a communication device; in fact, I had no idea this type of device existed at all before laying eyes on one at the evaluation. What I did find surprising was that those in the medical community had never seen or known about the types of available augmentative communication systems. In what way is DynaVox trying to ‘spread the word’ about augmentative communication to professionals, and really to the public?
 
Joe: As I mentioned earlier, the higher-end digitized and synthesized devices reach less that 10% of those that would benefit from the technology. DynaVox is involved in a number of activities to try to improve that:
 
  • We conduct training seminars called DynaVox University across the country for Speech Language Pathologists and Assistive Technology specialists
  • The Yellow School Bus Tour has focused on training education professionals to the advantages of AAC
  • We co-sponsor events across the country called a Voice for Living focused on families with a non-verbal loved one at home
  • We have also been very aggressive in promoting AAC through our web-sites (I invite you to check out our website at dynavoxtech.com and watch the DynaVox user testimonials)
  • We are also involved in every major national and most state Assistive Technology Conferences
  • Lastly, there is still no substitute for having local sales consultants across the country. 
 
Alicia: Recently, ABC News did a piece on Assistive Technology to help get the word out about how valuable technology can be in the lives of individuals with disabilities. The interview demonstrated several types of technology, including the new V. Readers can access this interview with David Dikter the Executive Director of Assistive Technology Industry Association or ATIA by clicking on this link and also through the DynaVox website. 
 
Alicia: What’s the future of voice output technology? What kinds of devices do you envision for children with Autism in the future?
 
Joe: I think DynaVox devices will continue to get better every single year – faster communication, easier to use, better voice quality, age and skill appropriate pages-sets. I also think AAC devices will become more than just a speech generation device, allowing an augmentative communicator to communicate with the outside world in different ways, i.e., text message, email, make a phone call, browse the internet, etc.
 
 
Alicia: Finally, if a parent is considering augmentative communication for their child, what’s the first thing they should do?
 
Joe: One thing I have learned in the last five years if that it is the loving, but aggressive, parent that gets things done when it comes to getting an AAC device for a child. If I had a non-verbal child, I would demand to get a speech evaluation from my child’s school. If the school told me no, I’d keep pushing regardless. If I continued to run into roadblocks, I would have my child evaluated by a private Speech Language Pathologist that has experience with AAC and call DynaVox to ask for help in finding a funding source.  
 
We here at The Autism Life.com would like express our deepest thanks to Joe Swenson for taking the time out of his incredibly busy schedule to help our readers learn more about augmentative communication and the DynaVox family. To learn more about DynaVox please visit the DynaVox website and to learn more about Augmentative Communication please check out our AAC section and our AAC Links page. Anyone who would like to find a list of AAC evaluators should check out their states Assistive Technology Program here.
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