May 19, 2006
Big Box of Words
The BBoW is actually a Prentke Romich Vantage Plus augmentative alternative communication device. The BBoW is smaller in screen area than a laptop but is in a heavy, durable plastic case that can deal with the kind of gentle, loving care that a six year-old is known for. It uses an interactive dynamic display that responds to touch, even when coated with mac and cheese. The device weighs about four pounds and has a clear cover (with lots of stickers) to protect its screen, as well as a shoulder strap. Because the screen is very bright and is in use for most of the day, the BBoW requires overnight recharging most evenings, after Schuyler goes to bed.
The BBoW is programmed using a communication language called Unity. It has an expandable vocabulary of about three thousand words and can be programmed to function at a number of different levels, from a remedial level for beginners and profoundly impaired kids to an advanced level suitable for adults. The system uses a combination of pictures and words to build sentences and give choices and ultimately teach language. Certain choices prompt the device to change the menu options to make communication easier and show the user how language works smoothly.
For example, if Schuyler wanted to say that she wants to have spaghetti for dinner, she would hit a button with a little girl on it for "I" (rather than ones for "you", "he", etc.) and then a little icon with a criminal in stripey clothes ("want"; get it?), followed by a button with the word "to" and then a button with a picture of an apple. As she does so, a screen at the top of the BBoW fills in the words as she selects them. "I want to eat..."
When she hits the apple button, the screen changes. The top row now shows a list of meal types. She selects "dinner" and it changes again, showing different types of dinner menus. She selects "Italian" and then, from the next screen, spaghetti. When she's got her sentence constructed, she touches the area at the top of the screen where the string of words has been forming, and the device speaks the sentence for her.
"I want to eat spaghetti."
The voice that speaks is computerized and sounds more or less like a child. One complaint that I have with the device is that even though I assume most of the people who use them are fairly young, there aren't that many child voices available, and so I think every kid in Schuyler's class sounds the same, using the "Kit" voice. Even among people using the same voice, however, there are programmable variations in pitch and variance and speed that can personalize the voice further. Our original PRC rep told me that she can tell which of her clients is calling her on the phone just from these settings.
Let's discuss Schuyler's school. On another blog, some swell anonymous person descended from the upper branches of the Assmonkey Forest long enough to suggest that we must have pulled a fast one on the world since we raised all that money to buy Schuyler a device when she attends a school district that will provide the devices for its students.
Two points about that. First of all, when Schuyler first began using the BBoW, we didn't live in North Dallas. We lived near Austin, and the small school district where Schuyler attended was unwilling to help purchase the device that we considered appropriate for Schuyler. They said she'd never be capable of using it. I'd like to say she proved them wrong when we moved to North Dallas and placed her in a proper learning environment, but she was using it far beyond what her school thought possible a few weeks after she started using it. We had no idea that the local schools had a program for device users at that time. (There were only four in the country, although I'll bet there are more now.) It was several months later that we found out about the program and decided to risk everything and move to North Dallas so that Schuyler could attend her Box Class. By the time she started in that class, she had already been using her BBoW for about four months.
Secondly, if we ever decide to leave North Dallas and the school district here, she won't lose her BBoW. That's unlikely, but not impossible; today I found out from a friend who works as a nanny here that one of her charges, a four year-old, was pulled from her pre-school class because other four and five year-olds were making death threats to her. Apparently that's not as rare as you might expect. North Dallas has a reputation for having the best schools in Texas, but it is also infamous in this state for having horrible, nasty children. The Box Class is supposed to be a three-year program, after which time Schuyler will hopefully be able to attend mostly mainstream classes. We'd like her to stay in the North Dallas schools, but not if she has to make a shiv in shop class just to protect herself. I thought all this consideration was far far in the future until I was told about these four year-old kids threatening to cut another kid's throat, "and not pretend". Seriously.
So Schuyler's device is her own. She takes it most places, either on her shoulder or in her backpack. (Or on the shoulder of one of her parents if she can scam us into carrying it for her.) She does not carry it on the playground or to the swimming pool, places like that where it could be damaged. She also doesn't use it in bright sunlight where the screen is impossible to read. She takes it almost everywhere but won't keep it out to use if we're at a movie, for example. She uses it to order her own food at restaurants, something we insist on now even though it makes some waiters and waitresses uncomfortable. Fuck 'em.
In addition to the picture- and word-guided sentence construction, Schuyler uses her device to practice her spelling, which she loves to do, and also numbers and math. She was showing off her addition skills the other night at dinner, for example. She sees words and spells them out on a section of the BBoW that gives her a screen with the alphabet on which she can spell whatever she likes. She loves spelling things out and will often use this page to say things that she can just as easily find pictures for on other parts of the device.
She explores on her device constantly. She found a page with body parts one day while we were all driving somewhere once. Nothing like hearing the word "penis" come floating up from the back seat out of nowhere. She also found the word "yikes" on the BBoW, which was sort of a random thing to hear her say. To her credit, she used it properly.
Someone left a comment once suggesting that we should refer to it as her "voice" or "words" rather than her device. Both we and Schuyler's teachers refer to the BBoW as Schuyler's device, not her voice. Schuyler uses several different forms of communication, including the BBoW, sign language and even some limited verbal communication, and she understands the difference between them all. No baby talk is required.
How smart is Schuyler? No one knows. It is almost impossible to measure the IQ of a non-verbal child, and even testing by a skilled pediatric psychiatrist is a very subjective affair that we don't feel compelled to put her through at this time. She is clearly behind other kids her age but in the year that she's had the device, she's made good progress. I am convinced that she is of normal intelligence, and as she finds her voice, she'll continue to catch up.
I also predict that she'll eventually learn to swear on the BBoW, probably sooner than her teachers will like. Well, I can dream my little dream.