Having a Master’s degree may qualify you to practice as a Speech Pathologist or Special Educator but it doesn’t prepare you for one of life’s trickiest of tasks: planning your schedule at a conference . If you have a Ph.D. in Cryptography or 20 years of Project Management experience, you might just be able to get through two days before everything falls apart and you end up crying into your cocktail at the pool bar. Otherwise the best strategy is to walk into any room at random and when the session ends, follow a group into another. Given that 75% of all the sessions at a conference are going to contain information you’ll find useful, statistically speaking you’re likely to find the random approach very productive.
However, this year, the folks at ATIA made it really easy to keep track of your time by offering a free mobile app for Android and Apple platforms. You could also use a web-based version but that has been available before – and it’s the app version that’s more useful while wandering around the conference hall. Unlike some folks who seem to be happy to carry around a bag the size of a small car, I’m more inclined to adopt a minimalist approach and try to carry as little as possible. This means my wallet (back right-hand pocket), trusty Droid 3 (front left-hand pocket), fountain pen of the day (front right-hand pocket), and bright red Quo Vadis notebook (carried). And this year, instead of stuffing sheets of paper with session information into my notebook, I downloaded the ATIA app to my Droid and all was well!
The feedback on the app shows that most folks have it on an iPad, then iPhone, and finally an Android. It would have been nice if the feedback had offered a “No sir, I don’t like it” rather than the biased “Tell us what you like it on” but presumably the reasoning is that folks who don’t like it won’t use it. Still, maybe next time…
There was another amazing piece of Assistive Technology I stumbled across for the first time this year; the Starbucks vending machine! OK, so maybe you don’t count this as “assistive technology” but it certainly helped me.
All you do is pop a cup under the spigot, swipe a credit card or debit card, press a few buttons, and out pops a cup of Starbucks’ java without the need to talk to a human being. Or in the case of the Caribe Royale Conference Center, without the need to get into a car, head out of the hotel, take two right turns, drive about a mile, and pull up at the nearest actual Starbucks store.
The exhibit hall was busy during the morning. As might be expected, it was awash with tablets, all looking surprisingly the same as everyone and their dog joins in the frenzy to create the “next great AAC app” which looks just like the “last great AAC app.” And in an effort to adapt tablets to do the job of a dedicated AAC device, you can now attach an array of “peripherals” that are doing a great job of completely destroying the idea that having an iPad “makes you look like everyone else.” By the time you’ve bought a box to fit it in, speakers to make it louder, an interface box to add a switch, and a mounting kit to make it fit to a wheelchair, the thing looks more like a Rube Goldberg/Heath Robinson contraption than a sleek piece of technology.
In the new world order of consumer AAC, there is no “evaluation” along traditional lines. Rather than assess an individual to determine their needs and then select from a range of potential devices, the new consumer goes to Best Buy, asks the “expert” which iPad to buy, and then looks for anything on iTunes with 4 stars and downloads it. Problem solved.
But of course, it isn’t. Those of us who have been in AAC since the advent of the personal computer in the 80’s (and yes, there WERE devices with speech output before the iPad, whatever Apple may want you to believe) know that just dropping a device in someone’s lap – sometimes literally – does not solve the problem. In fact, simply providing a piece of technology and then walking away is called abdication, not intervention. There is a frightening tendency to think that “there’s an app for that” applies to everything, when there are many, many factors involved in helping someone succeed with an AAC system.
I’ll say again, because Apple zealots seem to disagree with me, that my beef is not with technology – and being in the technology and software vending game myself should be proof enough of the pudding – but with the lack of support given in the choosing, teaching, and long-term supporting of clients with communication needs, the solution to which is only partly aided by a device, whatever flavor that may be. I do not doubt the sincerity of anyone who is trying to help provide a way for folks with communication impairments to express themselves. But when there are over 150 apps labeled as “AAC” apps, how does anyone decide which to use? And more fundamentally, once a choice is made, how do you then support it – because I guarantee that no matter how much money your school district is spending on providing “communication solutions,” it’s spending a whole lot less on employing more staff to actually support it! If it took one teacher 2 hours a week to work with one kiddo with an AAC device, how many does it take to work with 5 kids with iPads? The answer appears to be “one, because that person has to work 5 times harder.”
OK, rant over. I’ve taken a deep breath and a shot of tequila  and am beginning to mellow. Tomorrow sees me doing the first of my presentations and having to go to several meetings. Thank goodness I have the ATIA conference app to remind me of when and where I need to be for my session!
 There is another conference-based task that has a similar level of complexity; splitting the bill at a restaurant. It’s inevitable that if you’re doing it right, at some stage during a conference you’ll have a rollicking, riotous good time with a bunch of new and old friends at some great restaurant or bar. Until the check arrives and you have to split the bill 14 ways. This not only causes your server to suffer from raised blood pressure (“Can we have separate checks – all 14 of us?”) but there’s no way anyone wants to simply divide the bill by 14 because Annette, Betty, and Cheryl shared two bottles of wine, but Erica only drank water, and Frank and Gerry were having a shot-drinking contest, while Harry insisted on a fresh lobster but Ian only had soup and a salad, and only Jan, Karen, and Larry had a desert…
The best way to address this one is to wait until ONE person goes to the restroom and then everyone else makes a run for it. This won’t, of course, work twice with the same group.
 If you read yesterday’s post and recognized this sentence as an example of syllepsis, congratulations! If you didn’t read yesterday’s post, go there right now and find out what syllepsis is 😉