Morning of A Successful Communicator

Celebrating Blogging Against Disablism Day

Disablism Stops At Home

Siobhan (Sha-vonn) is 17 years old. She lives with her parents, Joseph (me) and Linda, in Santa Monica, California, USA. She attends Santa Monica High School, swims in the pool there nearly every day, and goes to occupational and physical therapy a few times a week. Siobhan has Cri-du-chat Syndrome, or Five P Minus (5p-). She is a mosaic; she has the transcription error in approximately 50 percent of her cells. Siobhan is ataxic (loss of full control of bodily movements) and hypotonic (abnormally low body tone) and she is developmentally disabled. She is also nearly completely non-verbal, but she has a communication system. None of her other classmates who need communication systems have one. I can’t help but feel that someone is selling those other students short. Disablism stops at home.

Wake Up!

“Time to get up!” says Mom. Dad goes to Siobhan’s bedroom, just off the kitchen and adjacent to an accessible bathroom. Dad releases Gaynor, Siobhan’s Canine Companions for Independence trained skilled companion dog, from her kennel in Siobhan’s room. Siobhan pulls the covers up. She shakes her head “no.” Dad uses a shaping technique to get her moving. “I have strawberries, and muffin, and cucumbers, and…” Siobhan flings off the covers and starts her day.

Picture Exchange Communication System

plastic PECS binder with plastic pages each with 4 vertical strips of velcro holding 16 to 20 one inch icons Out on the kitchen table is her Pyramid Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) book. This is a plastic binder with plastic pages inserted into it. The pages have Velcro strips, and on those strips are 1 inch size icons printed out from Boardmaker, glued to cardboard, overlaid with clear contact paper, and with a dot of Velcro on the back. She currently has 124 icons in her book. Also in the kitchen is a large binder with hundreds of 1 inch icons already made up for replacements or to swap in as needed for additional vocabulary. Maintaining this system is truly a labor of love.

Picture Schedule

Also in the kitchen is a picture schedule. This is a tall strip, also made of plastic, with one vertical strip of Velcro. On it are icons printed out in a 2.5 inch size for readability across the room. At the bottom of the schedule is a pocket for icons that are moved off the schedule as the activity is completed. Beside the schedule is a large binder with many pages of icons for the schedule. Mom comes on the scene and rearranges Siobhan’s schedule. Siobhan is all attention. Up on the schedule goes “car” and “school” and “swim.” Then comes a picture of who will be picking her up, followed by “physical therapy” if she has that and then probably “go home.” Siobhan can tell in an instant what she will be doing during the day by checking her schedule. A picture schedule is also used for her in her classroom. You can see her interacting with her schedule on YouTube.

Communication Book

Seated at the table Siobhan glances towards the schedule, sees car first up, and then begins to assemble her first sentence of the day. She opens her book, selects the “I want” icon, and places it on the sentence strip at the bottom of the book. She quickly scans the pages to find the next word. She selects “car” and places it on the strip, takes the strip off the book, and hands it to a communicative partner, me. I take the strip and as Siobhan points to the words I say “I want car.” I immediately return the sentence strip to her while I tell her that indeed, she’ll be going to school in the car very soon. The instant she gets the strip, she’s ready with her next sentence. “I want sandwich peanut butter.” That’s three icons. Siobhan rarely makes sentences with more than three icons. Syntax is flexible; though she always starts with a sentence starter such as “I want”, she omits articles and we tolerate “sandwich peanut butter” instead of insisting on “peanut butter sandwich.”

The Look

She usually follows up with “the look” which is one of intense concentration. She’s always had an effective way of communicating with her eyes, and this compelling gaze usually makes us hop to it. Grin!

Voice Output Device

Mom also takes Siobhan’s Dynavox MT4 (discontinued) off the charger, turns it on, and places it on the table in front of Siobhan. The communication book requires no batteries to run but is limited in the number of icons it can hold. It requires a communicative partner who is willing to take the sentence strip and read the icons, which have both pictures and words printed on them. The MT4 is a Voice Output Device or VOD. The MT4 is equipped with a touch screen, thousands of icons, powerful speakers, and a battery that lasts a good part of the day. Unlike the sentence strip that needs mediation, it gives Siobhan an immediately perceptible voice. We have arranged the pages in the VOD to approximate the communication book. We are using the same PECS methodology in both platforms. It is very important to have a methodology in place when moving to a VOD. See my CSUN 2009 presentation for details.  We have changed the voice over the years to approximate Siobhan’s age. Currently Siobhan is using “Ursula” with a pitch of 37 and a volume of 73 in normal circumstances. The volume is raised and lowered to match her surroundings.


As soon as the MT4 is in front of her, Siobhan turns it on. She hovers over the start sequence, excited to start talking. A flurry of sentences then come from the MT4 and from her communication book. Dad prepares her breakfast and Siobhan lets him know what’s missing. “I want grapes,” says the VOD, as she holds up a sentence strip that says “I want purse.” Siobhan has a mania for Mom’s purses. She asks Dad for purse all the time. Repeatedly. “I want cucumber.” “You already have cucumber in front of you” says Dad. “Cucumber.” “I want broccoli” with the VOD followed by “I want chicken” followed by a sentence strip “I want car” and for good measure another “I want purse.”


Siobhan uses both the VOD and the communication book almost interchangeably, though she comments almost exclusively with the VOD. Commenting on the VOD is enhanced by the use of Dynabooks – spring-loaded pictures that speak. We take a photograph and insert it into the MT4 – through what can only be described as a byzantine interface – and make the picture into a full page spread with speakable text that launches when Siobhan presses the appropriate icon.


PECS was designed to teach communication initiation by being reinforcer-based. There has to be a reward for communicating. You have to have what Siobhan wants in order to form the basis for communication. When Siobhan sees the picture of her godmother’s new baby and the VOD says “I gave Juliet a kiss, I love Juliet” that’s her reward for commenting. Siobhan lovingly gazes at the picture of herself kissing Juliet. And then she goes back and presses it again. Siobhan is rewarded, and we are rewarded by seeing her smile and she’s interacting with us a bit by commenting.

Picture Perfect

And so the morning hums along, Dad busily acting as short-order cook, Mom trying to wake up with very strong tea, Gaynor being fed and let outside to “Hurry!” and Siobhan all the while eating and commenting and putting in her orders. “I want crackers.” “Do it yourself” says Mom. Siobhan laughs because she knows that Dad will rescue her and give her some crackers. “I want crackers” says Siobhan. Dad delivers. He mostly always delivers. “I want leash” says Siobhan. She means Gaynor. She loves Gaynor. Siobhan pulls us all in for a group hug. Meanwhile, because Siobhan asked for it by name, the Lion King soundtrack is playing. It’s enough to drive one mad but the point is that she asked for it specifically with her own voice. By the way, we have words for the songs that are different than the original lyrics. Siobhan also asks for Cabaret. Cabaret! She’s very specific. Major win! “Two Ladies” is playing now. Gaynor is dancing with Linda. Siobhan is asking for the purse again. And this is a typical morning in the life of a successful communicator. I can’t imagine anything better.

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Contribute to Twitter Presentation at CSUN10

Twitter And Assistive Tech

Dennis Lembree (@dennisl) and Joseph O’Connor (@blacktelephone) are presenting “Accessibility of Twitter for Mobile, Desktop and Web” at the 25th Annual International Technology and Persons With Disabilities Conference in San Diego, California. The conference dates are from March 22 to 27. The presentation is scheduled at 8:00 a.m., Thursday, March 25.

You Can Help!

We are asking you to tweet about using Twitter with assistive tech on two topics:

  • How do you deal with the interfaces?
  • How has Twitter changed things for you?

Optional: audio record the written Tweets at or whatever you want to use. If you do record, please be sure to record what you have written in each Tweet you write. Write a Tweet, record that Tweet. You don’t have to record your Tweets to participate.

Accessible Twitter

This might be a good time to try Dennis Lembree’s Twitter site, and to Tweet about the experience.

How We’ll Use Your Tweets

We will use the Tweets/audio in our #csun10 presentation. We’ll present the Tweets on screen and hear the words – something for everyone. We’ll be looking for patterns such as the use of desktop applications with ZoomText, or mobile text with Talks, or mobile app with VoiceOver. These patterns will be touch-points for our presentation.


The hashtag for these Tweets will be #csun10s with the s representing story.

When Do I Start?

The days/dates we’ll be collecting Tweets and audio are Friday, February 26 – Saturday, February 27 in the northern hemisphere; Saturday, February 27 – Sunday, February 28 in the southern hemisphere.

Be Creative!

Feel free to be creative, to have fun, to be serious, to be furious, to be whoever you are. You know you want to do it!


Dennis Lembree @dennisl
Joseph Karr O’Connor @blacktelephone

For same info also see Webaxe blog.

For Fun And For Free

I am writing this on behalf of Accessible Twitter and Dennis Lembree.

In The Beginning

I was consulting at Cornell University in 1991 when I saw the first Web pages on a NeXT computer. The first pages were rather accessible but there wasn’t any assistive technology on the NeXT computer at that time. JAWS for DOS was originally released in 1989 by Ted Henter but as far as I know it never existed for NeXT.

Though Tim Berners-Lee is supposed to have said that he never intended for pictures to be displayed on the Web, in 1992 he apparently went out of his way to load this first Web picture.

Uploading that picture brought on the beginning of inaccessible Web design. People merrily went about “designing” pages filled with pictures with no alternative text. Pages with black backgrounds, yellow slanty text, and the tiled rings of Saturn. It was mostly academics, scientists, military people who had accounts. The Web grew out of their sensibilities.

A very common sensibility on the early Internet that carried over to the early Web was that it was for fun and for free. The people who regularly used the Internet back then might not have described their modality as for fun and for free but they sure lived it. I remember incendiary flame wars over the very mention of a commercial product in a Usenet newsgroup discussion. Contrast that with Blackboard claiming they own a patent to deliver courses over the Web. Sheesh.

Tim Berners-Lee himself did not patent the Web. While CERN was certainly a very serious enterprise, you could easily say that he gave the world the Web for fun and for free. Think about that for a second or two. This enormous economic development engine that is the Web was given to us for fun and for free. Wow!

Big AOL Bang

Now I come to the Big AOL Bang. When all those AOL pukes were set loose on the raw wild Internet in 1995 they destroyed it. They went right to GeoCities, also vintage 1995, and made pages that look like this.

Sorry Ms. Hagen. I do really love your music though. I even have your vinyl! Vinyl? Well, records used to be relea… Records? Well records were…

Alright, so that page isn’t on GeoCities… but it should be. And what’s up with 1995 anyway? OMG!

From the beginning of the Web I was called on to “make a Web page” for places I worked, or lived, or friends, or politicians, or artists. I made Web pages. I tried to make plain pages with logical navigation. I was admonished. The client wanted black backgrounds with yellow slanty text, animated gif sparkle ponies, and a picture of their cat. And that was for a course syllabus. Of course.

Section 508 Saves The Day

In the USA in August 1998, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act was signed into law tasking the General Services Administration with providing technical assistance concerning the requirements of the law. Accessibility was now mandated by law, and it was good. And order was imposed on the Web. NOT!

As recently as this past week, on July 29th, 2009, the NFB – National Federation of the Blind – gave the online retailer some recognition. “The NFB’s Gold Level Certification is awarded in recognition of commitment and innovation to help ensure equal Web access to the visually impaired individuals.” The ironic thing is that I read the press release on a page without a skipnav or headings, with endless navigation and inline CSS; in short a rather inaccessible page.

Let’s review: 508 goes into effect 10 years ago. 10 years later, the NFB finds it necessary to note that an online retailer is doing something about accessibility. Boy oh boy.

I haven’t done extensive accessibility testing of, but here’s the first text (hidden) at the top of the mainpage: “If you are visually impaired and are having difficulty navigating this site, please call our Customer Support line.” Hmmm… I’m confused, if I can’t see the invisible text I should raise my hand? Of course!

What they are doing of course is putting that text there for those with screen readers, a vital but small portion of those with disabilities. They’re trying, but probably doesn’t get the whole picture.

They should read this article titled Don’t Just Tick Boxes.

Accessible Twitter

Now, after a lengthy digression in which I partly laid out the history of the inaccessible Web, added in the Big AOL Bang, took a potshot at Nina Hagen, and poked in the eye (Doh!) I come to Dennis Lembree and his remarkable construction of Accessible Twitter.

I believe that there are others involved in creating and maintaining and upgrading and generally futzing with Accessible Twitter. Dennis is to be lauded, as is anyone else who is contributing including:

Dennis has poured what looks to be his every waking moment into Accessible Twitter. And it is truly accessible. I can even navigate with the keyboard. I get an audio cue when I’ve reached milestones in my character count. It is semantic, and there are proper headings.

Oh, about that audio cue. Erm… do NOT leave your speakers turned up most of the way when using Accessible Twitter. Makes me jump every time I hear “30 characters” loudly proclaimed. You’ll want to wear headphones if anyone else is trying to sleep.

Dennis Lembree is a pioneer, a magician, a dedicated soul who is the heart of the real Internet, the Internet I have come to love so much. The Internet that helped me for free when my daughter was born with severe disabilities in 1992. The Internet that freely helped me heal a RAID array on Christmas Eve 1997 so our thesis students could resume their work. The Internet of thoughtful individuals giving their time for fun and for free so that others may benefit, thoughtful individuals like Tim Berners-Lee. That’s who Dennis is. And that’s why he deserves our support, because he’s giving it away, for fun and for free, expressing love one Tweet at a time.

You might also want to read Accessible Twitter: how it should have been done to start with.


News at 10: Hell Freezes Over!

In Siobhan, the Soundbeam, and Disablism I wrote of our continually failed quest (since 2003) to include our daughter, Siobhan, in the same wonderful music program as all the other kids in the Santa Monica/Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD). Siobhan has some severe disabilities, but she’s fully capable of pushing a big red switch. The switch in this case is attached to a Soundbeam 2 system, which can be preloaded with music cues. Siobhan’s paraprofessional can assist in the process by using error-free teaching techniques to assure success.

Each year at Individual Education Plan (IEP) time we invite the music teachers. As a group they have given me the impression that hell would have to freeze over before Siobhan would be allowed to muck up their massively impressive Hollywood-quality concerts. Plus the music teachers have failed to even show up most years. This year they showed up.

There were the usual multiple reasons why the Soundbeam can’t be used – end of year, big concert, lack of training, etc. To their credit the teachers did put some effort into learning the Soundbeam… the day before the IEP meeting. Suffice it to say that we had reached yet another impasse.

Then I was inspired to action. Action is the magic word. What action was I inspired to? I blurted out “all we want is for Siobhan to play one music cue, in one music piece, in one concert.” Silence. There was silence in the room for a few seconds. I felt like I had given away the store, that six years of waiting suddenly had the potential to produce only one note.

And then the miracle happened. One of the music teachers was inspired by this interchange. He began thinking of ways to make this new goal happen. He said: “How about if she played the gong at the end of the Pink Panther?” This is exactly what Siobhan did last night, Tuesday, May 26th, 2009, on stage, in Barnum Hall, at Santa Monica High School, in Santa Monica, California. Here’s a picture of the gong she played with the gong in the foreground and the violin players in the background:

Here is part of what I wrote last night to the entire village and a half that produced that one gong strike: “Words cannot describe our absolute delight at hearing that gong tonight. Linda and I sat in our seats terrified that something would go wrong but it didn’t, thanks to practice and to Meghan (Siobhan’s marvelous paraprofessional). Siobhan was so cool she even hung up her mallet before applauding.” And she did, she hung up her mallet just like any other trained musician, before joining in the applause and taking her bow with the rest of the orchestra. I am so immensely proud of her, and very thankful to that one teacher who saw a clear path to make it happen.

By the way, that teacher who made it happen? He has a child with a disability.

Siobhan, the Soundbeam, and Disablism

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2009Today is Blogging Against Disablism Day brought to you by Diary of a Goldfish.

“We that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak…” Romans 15:1 – motto of Clipped Wings, a national organization open to all former, retired, and current United and Capital Airlines flight attendants.

In 2003, my family had the privilege of attending the family reception sponsored by Clipped Wings at theSpecial Olympics World Games in Dublin, Ireland. At that reception an award was given to Eunice Shriver and we heard a wonderful musical presentation that fully integrated musicians of all abilities. The orchestra was using traditional instruments alongside a Soundbeam 2 MIDI performance controller activated by switches and beams. When we saw the Soundbeam equipment being used by  musicians of all abilities we knew that our daughter Siobhan, a student with disabilities, could participate in mainstream instrumental music.

On YouTube there are some video resources to help you understand the Soundbeam. Though they focus more on music therapy than on mainstream music class and performance, you should get a clear picture of what the Soundbeam is and what it can do: Welcome to Soundbeam Part 1 and Welcome to Soundbeam Part 2. On YouTube you can also see Siobhan.

Since 2003, we have been unsuccessful in getting our schools to include our daughter in music. We even got our school to purchase the Soundbeam equipment, but it sits there, year after year. No one seems to have the imagination to understand what it is we saw in June 2003.

It is still our hope that Siobhan be included in mainstream music classes and performances. There is a music goal in her Individual Education Program (IEP) calling for the use of the Soundbeam. We have a four page timeline listing our begging, pleading, cajoling, demanding, asking, suggesting, interposing, meeting and otherwise chipping away at the goal month after month, year after year. For 6 years.

We’ve invited music teachers to each of the yearly IEP meetings. We had one music teacher actually sneer when we asked him to implement Siobhan’s music goal. This is Disablism at its finest. Because Siobhan doesn’t make verbal speech, because she has poor balance, because she lacks fine motor skills, she must not be able to participate. Have you ever heard a beginner violin orchestra performance? Sounds just like cats. Siobhan could have actually helped at those performances.

Disablism has been very much a part of our lives since Siobhan was born in 1992 but you know the strange thing? Out in the world people generally take Siobhan at face value. They take her order in restaurants though she uses assistive technology to “talk.” She’s known at the Saturday farmers’ market we go to each week. One farmer keeps the good grapes for her because he knows she likes them so much. The strange thing is: we usually only encounter out-and-out Disablism when interacting with school people. Now why is that?