A Tool Is Just A Tool

My Core Belief #2

Given the right tools and time, those voices can and should be heard

Tools are Just Tools…Until the right user picks one up to work on fixing the right problem. There is a tendency to focus our attention on the latest tool, the next big thing. It’s so tempting to abandon a tool for the next thing…the latest and greatest. What is the point of picking up a tool that may not be the fit the situation or match the person using the tool simply because it is intriguing? Undoubtedly, you tried a tool simply because it was suggested to you. The TV infomercial piqued your curiosity or the Apple Store said it was in the top 10 of reviewed users.

If you choose the wrong tool, you risk creating new problems, unintentionally missing the targeted goal or wasting time. You may experience short term gratification. This could potentially lead to long-term frustration. The right tool needs to be versatile, multi-use, and fits a variety of situations.

The Right Tools

Garages are full of tools. We buy storage units to hold the tools that we have used briefly, then they just sit. In schools, unfortunately there are cabinets full of abandoned tools as a result of outfitting a student with a tool that wasn’t the right fit. The tools used frequently are those where the user increases independence, efficiency and productivity. Any tool should save the user time and seem effortless in use. The usability should be intuitive. Spending time figuring out how to even begin to use the tool, the user may miss the opportunity for an immediate application leading toward realized independence.  This is especially true if there are multi-disciplinary team members (SLPs, OT/PT, Teachers) sharing the tool or device with the primary user.

Choosing quality tools may cost more in the beginning. Their payoff is immeasurable when the problem is solved and the process is felt effortlessly.  This is true for the tech tools we use in classroom settings and our homes to meet the communication needs of people with disabilities. The effective usability is demonstrated and measured when the user’s preferences and interests are made known.

The right tech tool should allow a student to freely and effortlessly move through various features with success.  It has features which allow the student to use their own voice. However, it needs to be accessed in a systematic and supportive way.

MyKey Thoughts From The Classroom

Holly is a student who has significant barriers to communication due to language processing and articulation disorders.  She has Down’s Syndrome and has strong adaptive skills despite her cognitive deficits. She speaks English as a second language and is quite verbal, however, her social communication is severely limited. In her high school special education classrooms, she has been able to participate in a grant program where she and her classmates utilize iPads to access the curricular content and explore a variety of communication supports. Over the course of the year, Holly became highly proficient in navigating tools to help voice her own preferences through her daily life.

As one of her classroom teachers, I decided to primarily use Notability, Edmodo, a First/Then Visual Schedule and Google to assist her in communicating her ideas and to advocate for herself socially with her classmates. It took a minimal amount of time to teach Holly the skills she needs to navigate each app. Her newly acquired skills allowed her to freely express herself while moving from app to app while building on the layers of information that she was able to create herself.

A Gauge of Success

These tools matched Holly’s communicative needs and there was a universality to implementing the tools with other students.  By the end of the school year, the staff and students with whom Holly worked were astounded at her proficiency and excited to experience hearing her “voice” come through as she shared her personal information in a variety of contexts. Students in the class were able to apply their own personal skills to these tools extremely well. Although there was a significant cost to acquire the iPad and to institute the general classroom usability, the ongoing use was effective in the application process.

Engagement with the presented content is another clear indication that a tool is effective in its use.  When a student independently experiences a seamless and effortless tech tool, they are positively reinforced to remain focused on the given task, and to continue using the tool to assist them in self-advocacy.

It is thrilling to experience the revealing of a person’s true voice using the right tool. Although someone may have significant communication barriers, they can and should be heard. This is increasingly possible with the innovative technology we have at our fingertips. We need to be committed to a systematic presentation of these thoughtfully selected, well-designed tools.