Hey, Is There an App for That?

We are honored to have today’s guest author share his wisdom and years of experience with SpeakUP readers.  Michael Williams has been President of USSAAC, a member of the ISAAC Board of Directors, and a participant, collaborator, and partner in several AAC research and engineering projects.  He has also written extensively about AAC, as well as disability rights.  Today he shares his colorful firsthand perspective including how AAC has changed throughout his lifetime and his thoughts on the continued importance of multimodal communication.


The strangest things happen to me when I’m out and about. For example, when I’m at my local big-box store corralling my monthly supply of fish sticks and toilet paper, folks often sidle up to me and ask, “Michael, why do you have so many ways to communicate when you could do everything with just one app?

Michael Williams peering over his light-tech alphabet board.

Michael Williams peering over his light-tech alphabet board.

Well what can I say? I’m an old guy. I’ve been using the tools, strategies, and techniques of assistive and alternative communication (AAC), even before the field of AAC officially arrived on the scene.

I was born in Chicago, Illinois in the late nineteen-thirties. My parents and I lived in my paternal grandparents’ three-story house, which was always busy with people coming and going. I never felt isolated or lacking in attention; I was busy, too. Someone was always reading me stories, and often they would hold the book so I could see the pages.

My grandfather was a well-known Chicago minister. One of my favorite things to do was ride my Kiddie-Kar from my bedroom to his office, which was down the hall. There, I watched as he pounded out his weekly sermon on his standard manual typewriter, which sat like a grim behemoth on his desk. Sometimes he would notice me watching him, and he would come over, scoop me out of my vehicle, and let me sit on his lap. When I got a little older, my grandfather would insert a fresh piece of paper in the typewriter and let me bang on the keys. That was the moment I started to internalize the QWERTY keyboard. It was such fun seeing those letters appear on the paper as I struck the keys. My family was preparing me to be a reader and writer, and successfully imprinted a love of both in my young mind.

How did I communicate in the pre-literate phase of my life? Well, my childhood communication toolbox contained a multitude of meaningful grunts and groans, gestures, not very consistent vocal approximations, and a whole slew of spastic body language and facial expressions. Communication in those early years was filled with frustration that often grew into exasperation, but never, ever reached utter futility, even when I was being a wild-eyed angry brat. As my literacy improved, I was able to add another tool to my communication toolbox: air writing. I could use my left hand well enough to draw letters of the alphabet in the air. I combined air writing with my vocal approximations to raise my communication abilities up several levels. Some people just couldn’t catch on to what I was doing, but many others did.

I went to school in an experimental classroom for physically disabled children. The classroom was up a flight of stairs in a regular elementary school. A big guy named Oscar used to haul all of us upstairs one at a time and back down again when it was time to go home. There, I learned the rudiments of reading and writing and some arithmetic. I learned to write my name on wide-lined paper using a fat pencil, which I held in the fist of my left hand. I became friends with those wacky characters Dick and Jane, their dog Spot, and their friend Sally. The teachers (This was a dual-teacher classroom) encouraged every student to read out loud, no matter how severe their dysarthria. So when it was my turn to read a passage, I got into an emotive mode and delivered a powerful reading of such lines as “See Spot run. Run, Spot, run.” I knew nobody understood me, but I didn’t care. It was my chance to make some joyful, rhythmic noise.

I started seeing a speech therapist recommended by my doctor. Everyone had high hopes that she could help me speak more clearly, but it soon became apparent to my young self that this lady had nothing to offer me except increasing levels of frustration. My mouth and tongue just wouldn’t go into those positions she was cajoling them to, and thus remained the standstill week after week, month after month, year after year, until one day my dad said he had accepted a job offer on the West Coast and we were moving to California.

I was just short of ten years old when we climbed into an old Dodge automobile, pointed it towards the setting sun and headed to the Wild West via Route 66. When I got to California, my communication toolbox contained all of my familiar meaningful grunts, groans, gestures, and vocal approximations, as well as my usual spastic body language and facial expressions, but now I had three new communication tools: pencil, paper, and a battered portable typewriter.

The communication tools I brought to California at age ten carried me through a tour of duty in another special education class, two years at a regular high school, two years at a city college, and two years at a private college. All the while, I was pounding out my ideas on various typewriters that came my way. My battered portable typewriter morphed into a grim standard manual typewriter like my grandfather used, and finally into an electric portable typewriter which I used into the nineteen-eighties.

In the mid-sixties, my lack of a viable on-the-fly communication method frustrated a friend, so they mocked up a letterboard for me to use. This low-tech letterboard and my high-tech typewriter remained my main communication methods with the outside world for almost twenty years.

I moved to Berkeley from Southern California in the waning years of the nineteen-sixties. I came for the counterculture, but discovered something far more valuable: a group of disabled people determined to live life on their own terms.  Hanging around these folks made me realize I had spent my adult life trying to pretend I was “normal,” running from my own disability and other disabled people. I started observing how other people were solving their problems of daily living, seeing what tools they were using to accomplish various tasks, and thinking how I could adapt them to my needs.

This was the first time I hung out with people from different parts of the disabled community. I was constantly checking out the tools others were using to see if they could be adapted my purposes. I had extended access to a portable text telephone (TTY), which was small, light, and had an LED display across which not just letters, but whole words would flow as I typed them on the QWERTY keyboard. I thought this was great. This thing allowed me to get my ideas across to folks in real time. Yeah, my communication partner would stand beside me or behind me to read the display, but this was more efficient than poking at a letterboard, hoping that folk could transform those letters into words. Due to circumstances beyond my control I lost my access to that TTY, but I filed the concept away in my memory.

I had my first experience with voice output communication in the late nineteen-seventies, when I participated in a research project to evaluate the first commercially available speech-generating device (SGD) in the United States, the Phonic Mirror HandiVoice. It was crude, it was slow, but the concept—that I had a voice that could express my thoughts—was very powerful; however, I soon discovered my new “artificial voice” was just another tool in my communication toolbox. It could not replace the other forms of communication I was using. Many of my friends and colleagues hated my new voice. It took forever to input the simplest of thoughts, and if I made a mistake in my inputting, the output would turn into gibberish, and laughter and derision would ensue.

This voice output communication research project introduced me to the field of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). I was stunned! These folks weren’t the speech therapists of my past who were trying to get me to do stuff I knew I couldn’t do. These new AAC folks were more interested in me getting my message across. These AAC folks taught me how to use phonemes to make an SGD articulate those stubborn phonemes and say the words I actually wanted to say. While SGDs have been an invaluable addition to my communication toolbox, and SGDs have become more powerful, flexible, and easier to use with each generation, I happily still use all my low-tech AAC. I still find I need my full communication toolbox to communicate in multiple environments with a variety of communication partners.

My communication journey began on my grandfather’s lap as he sat at his behemoth of a manual typewriter. The evolution of this machine has taken many forms, from manual, to electric, to home computer and all its mobile cousins. When I touched the HandiVoice for the first time, I knew I was starting another long and interesting journey. It has taken me places far and wide, and I have met many incredible people along the way, from the AAC specialists who know about language and its development, to the AAC engineers who can transform AAC ideas into usable computer technology. I am happy to have communicated in so many ways with so many people, but most of all, the thing that has brought me the most pleasure along the way is seeing how the kids I met at conferences ten or twenty years ago are now grown up multimodal communicators, living interesting lives in their communities.


Michael B. Williams was born with a speech disability in 1937. He has been President of USSAAC, a member of the ISAAC Board of Directors, and a participant, collaborator, and partner in several AAC research and engineering projects. He has written extensively about AAC, as well as disability rights. Born in Chicago and raised in Altadena, California, Michael, his wife, children, and grandchildren are thriving in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Financial Disclosures: None

Non-Financial Disclosures: I have used many commercial and non-commercial AAC products, programs, and initiatives, participated in their design, development, and production, and drank many pints of proffered beer and coffee while colluding with countless researchers, clinicians, and manufacturers. I am also friends and colleagues with many augmented communicators. I vote disability issues.


Jill E Senner, PhD, CCC-SLP

Thank you for reading this blog post. The views expressed in this post are that of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of USSAAC members and board members. No endorsement by USSAAC is implied regarding any device, manufacturer, resource or strategy mentioned. We would love to hear from you. Please share your thoughts with a comment below or send a message through our contact page.

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