Highlights from the ATIA 2019 Conference – Part 2

The ATIA Conference provides great opportunities for learning, sharing, and networking in assistive technology, and the 2019 conference was no exception. Here’s the second of two posts featuring a few of the highlights.

Highlights from ATIA 2019 - Part 2

Highlights from ATIA 2019 - Part 2
I was fortunate to attend ATIA’s 2019 Conference recently, held in Orlando, FL, and enjoyed the chance to learn from others and connect with the great folks who work in the assistive technology (AT) field. My first post on ATIA 2019 focused on highlights directly related to mouse access, while this post will highlight some educational sessions that addressed other topics. Keep in mind that with about 400 presentations, 120 exhibitors, and 3000 attendees, this is just one tiny sample representing one person’s ATIA experience. Please share comments about your ATIA experience!

Each of the sections below gives a few key points from an educational session. I tried to provide links to help you get more information, but I’m not able to share the presentation handouts on this blog. Feel free to get in touch if you want some more details about anything!

Building an AT Assessment Team

Heather Koren from Westminster Technologies presented a workshop on her experiences helping school districts build their AT capacity. Training and building AT teams continues to be a key factor in ensuring that students get the AT they need, and she cited research to back up that statement. Heather offers a 3-day intensive on-site training, followed by 6 months of Skype follow-up. This appears to be a really solid curriculum using existing frameworks and resources, such as Cook & Hussey’s HAAT model, the SETT framework, and WATI documents. She gave an example of training 20 people across a 19-district cooperative in Kentucky. Good stuff!

Complicated sensorimotor systems accessing AAC: A data-driven approach

A multidisciplinary AAC team from Arizona (Brenda Del Monte, SLP and OTs Gina Norris and Melanie Conatser) tracked characteristics of all 181 AAC evaluations they performed in 2017. The purpose was to document the importance of identifying and providing the right alternative access solution for individuals who use AAC devices for communication, and specifically to highlight the key role of occupational therapists within AAC teams. These presenters stated their manifesto up front: Access trumps language. In other words, the best language system is not effective without reliable and consistent access.

Some of their key findings, again, from 181 cases, most of whom were children under the age of 8:

  • 40% had some form of upper extremity motor impairment
  • 50% had some visual abnormality
  • 59% had other sensory or self-regulation deficits

A combination of unique sensory and motor challenges were present in the majority of their cases, and often were not identified in the original referral for services. This team’s approach is to address these issues first, before matching for appropriate language system, and this requires the involvement of an experienced occupational therapist. Their data suggest that the need for OT involvement is not just an occasional thing but rather the norm for people who require AAC.

Two photographs of the same child. The one on the left shows the original seating system, leading to poor posture and difficulty using upper extremities. On the right is a revised seating system, showing the child much happier, functional, and engaged.
The importance of positioning! Before (left) and after (right) this team implemented a revised seating system for an individual.

New insights from people who use AAC

Erin Sheldon and Amanda Hartmann described the insights they gleaned from Facebook interviews with a range of people who use AAC. (This presentation was titled “Considerations when selecting text-based AAC” in the ATIA program, but the presenters noted that, as they communicated with and learned from their interviewees, its emphasis changed significantly.) The purpose of the project was to inform new content for the AssistiveWare website, as they build a new “Learn AAC” section of the site. To ensure that any new content reflected the experiences and knowledge of individuals who use AAC, Erin and Amanda used a private Facebook group to engage in discussions with AAC users from several different populations, including those with developmental, acquired/progressive, acquired/stable, and acquired/cognitive-communicative conditions.

This in itself was an interesting premise: AssistiveWare made a commitment to representing the perspectives of arguably their most important constituency, people with complex communication needs, and they figured out an effective way to gather information about those perspectives in a way that worked well for everyone involved. And because of the willingness of the AAC-using participants to candidly discuss their perspectives, as well as Erin and Amanda’s openness to hearing them, the insights that came out of the interviews are well-worth sharing. They include:

  • Fewer than 10% of participants had experienced evidence-based AAC support from a professional.
  • Even AAC users with good motor control may need multiple alternative access strategies. (Note that this meshes well with the outcome of the Del Monte study above.)
  • *All* people use AAC. AAC is universal; speech is only for some.
  • Ditch your preconceptions about who might want or need AAC! Assume it might be useful to anyone you’re seeing.
  • Asynchronous social media is often the most useful accessible and inclusive form of communication, allowing AAC users to be authentically themselves.

The biggest challenge reported by AAC users is the behavior of speaking people. Here are a few of their ten tips for good communication partners:

  1. Be patient and wait.
  2. Watch the person not the device.
  3. Pay attention to multi-modal cues.
  4. Just ask (how you can help, what the AAC user prefers).

There were some poignant direct quotes from the interviews, including:

My partner is my favorite person to communicate with. He’s very understanding and I never feel judged by him… He values me communicating, however that may be. He listens.

In addition to writing website articles using these findings, the AssistiveWare team is also developing checklists and other tools to help support the identified needs of AAC users. They passed around something called the Person-centred Communication Partner Checklist, to help communication partners learn about an AAC user’s preferences; this looked useful, but I don’t think it has been made available yet.

An ongoing resource that came out of this work is a Facebook group called Ask Me I’m an AAC User. It provides a home for continued discussions of these topics, administered by three individuals who use AAC. They welcome questions from speaking people. Check it out!

Image from the Ask Me I'm an AAC User facebook page. It reads: "AAC is just as valid as mouth words."
Banner image from the Ask Me I’m an AAC User facebook page.

Seven research findings about AT you absolutely must know

Many of you know Penny Reed, Ph.D., an AT leader who (among other things) helps school districts improve their assistive technology services. One of her goals is to translate knowledge from research to practice, and she presented some of her key findings from reviewing the AT literature. They are:

  1. AAC promotes the development of speech and language.
  2. AT impacts the development of literacy skills.
  3. Use of powered mobility promotes exploration, does not prevent walking.
  4. Text-to-speech improves reading comprehension for many.
  5. Use of word prediction improves written output.
  6. Overall, AT works and improves quality of life.
  7. AT implementation improves with training and leadership.

All of these statements are backed by research results. For more details, read her web pages on AT research at the NATE network site, or find her on the QIAT listserv.

Special education technology research: What have we learned lately

In a similar spirit to Penny’s presentation, Dave Edyburn reviews the research literature each year and presents a few key articles. This year, it was a welcome surprise to see that he featured one of my articles: a systematic review of text entry rates for different access interfaces used by people with physical disabilities, written with Sajay Arthanat. OK, maybe this counts as a highlight only to me (and Sajay)… 🙂

If you went to ATIA 2019, what were some of your highlights? What topics would you like to see at ATIA in the future?

See you at ATIA 2020!

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