USSAAC Leaders & Legends: David Yoder

Today, we honor legend David Yoder. David worked in what would be considered AAC (before it was called AAC) starting in the 1950s! He mentored pioneers in AAC including David Beukelman & Greg Vanderheiden. He continues to be a strong advocate for AAC, presuming potential in all learners and communicators, and equitable literacy instruction for all. We were lucky to have a conversation with this legend and hear of his experiences in AAC.

David Yoder PhD. CCC-SLP

Portrait of David Yoder

Interview questions and transcript editing by Deirdre Galvin-McLaughlin with David Yoder

When were you first introduced to AAC and what was that experience like?

Well, I suppose it was not called AAC at that time.  I was a graduate student with Harold Westlake at Northwestern in the mid-fifties. We worked with several children with cerebral palsy who did not speak or whose speech was difficult to understand. He introduced me to what we called “the communication board”. We used a communication board at that time with all the children. Some boards contained just pictures in order to get communication going and then some boards were more elaborate with words and text. In fact, we were teaching reading, in many cases so that the students with CP could use their boards for spelling messages and having conversations with partners. That was my earliest experience with what is now called augmentative and alternative communication 

Did you have training or mentorship in AAC as a part of experiences and if so who were your important mentors? 

No, I didn’t have any senior mentors. I did have mentorship from students of mine who were working with me at the University of Wisconsin. They were Dave Beukelman, Deb Harris, and Greg Vanderheiden. These students were the people that got me going with AAC. Greg was an engineering student at Wisconsin and then came over and took courses with me. His fiance was Deb Harris, she was in Special Education. Greg Vanderheiden invented the first speech-generating device and from then on speech-generating devices got more and more sophisticated as we learned what people needed. Deb did her first dissertation in 1974 and it was about teaching kids to use the AAC device.  So, I suppose, the students and I were teaching each other.  It was ground-breaking stuff we were doing and it grew out of the engineering department, the special education department, and the communication disorders department at the University of Wisconsin. 

What were your early experiences with AAC and describe the tools? 

I think the evolution, in terms of what we would call today, augmentative and alternative communication devices, was invented by Greg Vanderheiden. He was an engineering student and was commissioned to build something for students with cerebral palsy by a teacher in his department. Greg came to see me because he didn’t have any background in language. I tutored him the best I could. 

The terminology, augmentative and alternative communication, came about in the mid-seventies. 

We developed the terminology Augmentative and Alternative Communication because Deb Harris, who I was working with, saw the difference between the two adjectives. We really went to “augmentative” because it was so closely connected to speech and “alternative” was applied to the device used to substitute for speech. Though, I remained a proponent of the “augmentative” approach as it was more efficient than using only the AAC device. I continued working on trying to get the person to use their natural speech as much as possible alongside using the device.

I’m curious what the first AAC system was like, can you describe the first system Greg made. What did it look like? How did it work? How did people use it? 

It was a very large communication board on a wheelchair. We programmed vocabulary and brief sentences used often in natural speech into it (examples: “How are you?”, “What is your name?”, “Where do you live?”). Information was programmed into the device that would make it more efficient and easier to use. There was a running screen on the device where you could see what they had selected on the screen. 

For those individuals who had some literacy, it was easier for them to use the device than others. I had a number of patients that would say “teach me to read” because they had observed that it was easier for users that were already literate to use the AAC device. So in some cases we were teaching reading along with teaching people how to use the device. 

Did people access the devices with their hands for the most part? 

Yes, or with a head stick, mouth stick, or toe typing.  Often there was a limited amount of time, the people we worked with could use a head or mouth stick,  because they had difficulties with head and neck control. We had some very intelligent people who were anxious to use a communication device and willing to do anything to get into the system. 

What are major successes you’ve experienced in AAC field

I guess, we developed practices using a device that could be used in order to enhance communication. Greg developed the device for use by people with disabilities. It was up to the rest of us to teach people how to use it. I was fortunate to have bright graduate students at the time that would try to enhance the systems. We had a group that would meet once a week where we would talk about how to improve the system. It was those students, early people, and work they did in the early literature, who developed AAC and the ways the device could be used.

What are major challenges in the field of AAC?

Well the engineers developed a system that was quite sophisticated and often users couldn’t keep up with it. It wasn’t necessarily due to the intelligence of the user but it was just that we hadn’t been able to match the device to the user.  I don’t know what is available today. I’m sure it is more sophisticated than we had envisioned at that time. 

If you could go back, is there anything you wished you had done differently

No, I think we did an excellent job with what we knew and were able to put to use. 

How has the field changed during your career?

So, I have to think about, what if we didn’t have AAC? We’d still be in the dark ages and not using systems that allow people to communicate as well as they do. I think of how it’s enhanced education and provided a way for people to demonstrate their intelligence that they otherwise wouldn’t have. There were a number of people who believed that “you can’t teach people with disabilities because they aren’t intelligent”. Often, once they got an AAC device, they showed us that they could and they went onto succeed in education. When I think what the devices have allowed in terms of education and employment, it’s phenomenal 

What do you envision the AAC field and community will be like in the future?

I think it will continue to grow as people develop new systems. I haven’t kept up with the newest and latest AAC devices but there are people out there developing new systems and engineers who have developed devices that are very sophisticated.

Final thoughts?

I’m sorry that Dave Beukelman has died. He was a pioneer, rich in ideas. 

There are young people coming up in AAC. These people coming up are lucky to work with the people before them. It is a model that we can build on. I’m looking forward to very sophisticated systems in the future.

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.

2 thoughts on “USSAAC Leaders & Legends: David Yoder”

  1. Pamela Mathy says:

    USSAAC—Thank you for posting this update and tribute to a very important leader and clearly a living Legend in AAC.

    I am also very fortunate to have had David as my doctoral mentor. A part of David’s philosophy of education was to give his students “unconditional positive regard”. For me David’s support and encouragement was the nourishment I needed to succeed in the doctoral program and beyond. In turn, I gave my students the same type of support as David gave me and believe they are doing the same for their students and patients/students/clients with complex communication disorders.

    David, your caring, inspiring, nurturing Legacy will continue to reverberate through the work of your students, your student’s students and on and on.

    Thank you!

  2. Having just learned of David’s passing, I must pay tribute to his readiness to accept new ideas and to share his enthusiasm for them. David was one of the first AAC leaders to appreciate the power of Blissymbolics to provide broad communication prior to learning to read. David, along with Gregg Vanderheiden and Deborah Harris, was highly responsible for Bliss becoming known and used throughout the United States in the mid seventies. Many persons who lacked functional speech benefitted from his foresight. I always remember that, whenever I spoke about Bliss to an American audience in the 70’s, David Yoder had preceded me and I received a very accepting and ready-to-learn welcome! David was a valued and very special colleague!

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