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Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) and assistive technology are life changing for individuals who are non-speaking. A professional is often a major factor in matching them with their best AAC solution. We asked our rock-star training and implementation team, made up of clinical professionals, to share their stories of learning about AAC for the first time with graduate students and young professionals. In their own voices, you’ll read how they each found a unique path forward after graduate school in gaining knowledge and passion for this field. 

Beth’s AAC Story

Read about the graduate school course that changed Beth’s life and set her career path. It was there she first saw the Express 3 – one of the first AAC devices – and discovered the true power of communication. 

It was 1980 something…I was sitting in the office of Dr. Hoops, the Speech Pathology and Audiology Department Chair of my university, with my big hair, sweater with shoulder pads, and knit leg warmers, probably thinking about the latest music video from MTV…as I was selecting courses for my last year of grad school. As we discussed the educational, medical, and clinical settings that speech-language pathologists (SLPs) find themselves in, Dr. Hoops told me I should take this new course called Augmentative Alternative Communication. When I asked what in the world that was… he told me it was speech-language therapy for nonspeaking individuals. Intrigued, I signed up for the course that would change my life and set my career on an exciting, challenging, rewarding, and yes sometimes frustrating path. It was here that I first saw the Express 3 – one of the first AAC devices by a new company called Prentke Romich Company (now PRC-Saltillo) – and discovered the true power of communication. 

That course offered foundational skills in assessment and implementation while showcasing the cutting-edge technology the 1980s had to offer. I was fortunate to complete my medical externship at a VA (Veterans Affairs) Medical Center, which had many early AAC devices of the day. My first job was at Easter Seals of Central Indiana. This agency didn’t have an AAC program, but with my new-found passion and eagerness to learn, I was able to work with administration, as well as our occupational and physical therapy departments, to develop one of the first AAC evaluation centers in the country.  

Without the internet as a resource, information came from books, direct interaction with AAC companies, attending conferences, and learning from individuals in need of AAC intervention. I went to every conference that provided information about AAC that I could. There wasn’t always money to attend conferences; however, back then, presenters often got complimentary registration. I quickly learned that, to get to a conference to learn from others, I needed to share what I was learning by presenting at conferences. Connecting with AAC device manufacturers and scheduling consultations with their representatives helped me get hands-on experience with equipment. Following leaders in the field also helped me build my knowledge of assessment and implementation. Working with children and adults who used AAC and their families taught me so much about perseverance and respect. From the smile of the four-year old telling his first joke to the man who called the cable company to report a service outage, witnessing individuals use their speech-generating devices to exert new-found independence is exciting! 

Co-treating with other occupational and physical therapists, counseling families alongside social workers, collaborating with educators and classroom staff, and consulting with audiologist, teachers of blind/visually impaired, music therapists, and behavior specialist brought a whole new perspective to the concept of “communication” as well as working in a team. 

I must admit, I am somewhat envious of those of you just beginning your career. You have access to so much information. New technologies exist today that seemed unattainable visions in science fiction movies a few years ago. How should you harness all this information and use it to boost your skills in this ever-evolving field? 

Find your people and follow them! These are leaders in the field of AAC with insight and creative passions. Follow them on social media, go to conferences or take online courses, and read their books. Be the change-leader and start a group of AAC enthusiasts in your organization or school! You don’t have to know everything; you don’t even have to know anything at first. Just bring people together and start the discussions, make connections, and begin planning opportunities for professional growth and development. Have a silent lunch with colleagues where everyone uses a lite-tech communication board or speech-generating device/app to communicate. Take AAC devices/lite tech boards out to dinner and use them in the community. Make one goal for yourself to learn about an area of interest in AAC. It could be physical access issues, literacy, communication partner skills, or anything else you find intriguing. Have a work bestie research another area and share with each other what you find out. Meet with an adult who uses AAC. You can connect with an ambassador, one of the individuals who uses a PRC-Saltillo device, through our AAC Language Lab. Talking with a person who uses AAC brings a whole new outlook to your practice. Befriend your AAC device manufacturer representatives or consultants. This connection will provide you with access to assessment, funding, and implementation information, as well as practical experience with devices.  

Before working at PRC-Saltillo, I worked in outpatient rehab, public school, and private practice, all with a focus on AAC. Each setting provided new opportunities and new challenges combined with the privilege of helping individuals find their voice through AAC. What I have learned throughout this journey is this: As a speech-language pathologist, it is our responsibility to help those in need of communication find their voice and it is their right to choose what they say. 

-Beth Waite-Lafever, M.A., CCC/SLP-ATP 

Cortney’s AAC Story

The best advice Cortney learned in graduate school led her down the path of discovery in her first pediatrics job with a slightly intimidating AAC device. Read about the invaluable support that planted a deep love for AAC.

I went to a great grad school! BUT we did not have a class on AAC. There was one elective course titled “Autism & AAC.” At the time, I did not see myself working with either population on a large scale, so I took the other elective course (on Head and Neck Cancer and Communication). I was so excited to work with adults in acute care settings in grad school!

Fast forward a few years, I have graduated and just completed my Clinical Fellowship (CF) year. I was not loving the rehab and acute care setting (totally a personal choice). I wanted to go back to working with peds. I found a small clinic that would be a great fit to get back into that work. One of my very first clients at that clinic came to me for a therapy session one day after school. He walked into my room with an AAC device the school had provided for him. He was using a Vantage Lite with Unity® 84 Sequenced. I took one look at that thing and knew instantly that I was in over my head. This parent was looking to me for support and answers on how to help her child use this device at home, but I did not have those answers for her that day. The best thing I learned in grad school was: it is okay if you don’t know the answer to a question or problem, be honest, and go find an answer.

So, I went straight to the source. I called my local Prentke Romich Company (PRC) consultant (this was before the company merged and became PRC-Saltillo). My consultant, who is still employed with us, was kind, supportive, and incredibly knowledgeable. Christine came out to my clinic; she gave me an overview of how the language system was organized, a quick run through on customizing the device and the language system, and more! She set me down the path of discovery and learning that allowed me to gain the knowledge I needed to support this client’s language growth, the family, and the team in working with the AAC device. The road was long and there was a lot to learn, but seeing this client’s success made me want that for so many others. (Side note: I still don’t feel like I know it all! And I shouldn’t, we are constantly growing, changing, and learning as a field.)

That support early in my career was invaluable! And it planted deep in me a love for AAC. In working with this client, I saw him finally able to communicate the things most important to him. I began recommending more devices for more clients. Through the years, I have carried this passion for AAC with me helping clients gain their voice and now helping SLPs and teams supporting individuals using AAC. It is such a valuable tool, and I am thrilled I get to be a part of that process for so many!

-Cortney Maholtz, M.A., CCC-SLP

Kirk’s AAC Story

Kirk’s passion to champion accessibility and inclusion began with his nephew. Read about his journey of empowering others through assistive technology.

We all have our own stories to tell about how we ended up in our professional role. My story starts when I was a young teenager, and my older brother had a son who happened to be born with a physical disability. His name is Darryl. As Darryl grew up, he and our family became increasingly aware of the many obstacles, both physical and attitudinal, that had to be faced. As part of that increased awareness came the responsibility to address these obstacles not only for Darryl, but for others. I want to say that I became an advocate for people with disabilities at an early age in life, and I liked to be known for continuing to champion accessibility, inclusion, and support personal empowerment.

Because of my family background in disabilities, I was interested in pursuing a career in the human resources field. I majored in pre-medicine, and I was going to continue my studies to become a physical therapist. After I received my bachelor's degree, I obtained a summer internship with the Robert Wood Johnson University Affiliated Program to work at United Cerebral Palsy of New Jersey. There I learned about respite care, vocational support, and more appropriately, assistive technology. I was an assistive technology apprentice after my summer program ended and worked alongside a group of talented rehabilitation engineers and gained many skills such as fabricating vocational and educational supports in a variety of environments for physical and occupational therapists, reviewing and cataloging commercially made adapted devices, and tinkering with alternative access for personal computers, which included voice output stand-alone devices, such as the touch talker.

In the early 1990s, I was offered a position at Temple University as the information and referral coordinator at Pennsylvania’s Initiative on Assistive Technology (PIAT) – currently known as TechOWL. The Institute on Disabilities also had a program called Augmentative Communication & Empowerment Supports (ACES) where I was the lead coordinator for a couple of years. This is where I met Jane Odom, developer of the AAC Language Lab, and became life-long friends and colleagues. I continued my studies at Temple University and received a Master of Education (MEd) in Special Education.

After that position, I went to California State University, Northridge (CSUN), and took a job as the coordinator for training, grants, and contracts. I developed the Assistive Technology Applications Certificate Program (ATACP) for the Center on Disabilities – which is still running today. This certificate is a 100-hour course focusing on assistive technology implementation. After CSUN, I worked for Region 4 Education Service Center in Houston, TX where I was the Lead for the Texas Assistive Technology Network (TATN) and worked closely with the Texas Education Agency to develop a system to provide accessible educational materials for all students in Texas. I then worked for CAST in the National Accessible Instructional Materials (AIM) Center, under the supervision of Joy Zabala, another life-long friend and colleague.

From my perspective of having a variety of jobs in various work environments, assistive technology – and specifically augmentative and alternative communication – has been woven into my activities and job responsibilities. The passion from my nephew, and others that I have met throughout my career, have helped me keep the focus on the end user, rather than the process. I would encourage those who are new to the field to find your passion and let that guide you to open doors of inclusion, accessibility, and to provide the power to give others the ability to communicate and live as freely and independently as possible.

-Kirk Behnke, M.Ed., ATP

Heather’s AAC Story

Read about Heather’s graduate school internships with emergent communicators. A group of boys impressed her by their interactions using their AAC devices.

My first experience with AAC was in grad school. Our assistive technology/AAC course covered a little bit on AAC, but it was in general terms. During my first internship, I was fortunate enough to have a supervisor in an outpatient rehab clinic that had three boys using AAC devices in a group session. It was a great way to learn about emergent communicators and how they could interact with each other while using their devices. At that same internship I had a preschooler learning how to use a switch on a device and another child who was working on expanding her use with direct selection on a device.

Each of my next internships had small amounts of exposure to AAC which was helpful for my first job after graduation in a school setting. I had one student on my caseload who had a device when I started, and he helped me continue to learn about AAC implementation. I continued to have an interest in working with students who used AAC and that led me to joining the district’s assistive technology team to help support our teams in middle school, high school, and the transition program as well as our Fed 4 K-12 program for complex students.

-Heather Prenovost, MS, CCC-SLP

Debbie’s AAC Story

Learn how Debbie got immediately hooked on AAC as an undergraduate. Her fascination grew as she worked with a student who was learning to talk with the first word-based Minspeak® language software on the market.

My AAC journey began when I was an undergraduate student in speech pathology and audiology at West Virginia University in 1985. The professor in my cerebral palsy course introduced the concept to me and I was immediately hooked.   

While I was a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, I had the opportunity to work with Jennifer, a high school student who was learning Words Strategy, a new language software in the Light Talker from Prentke Romich Company (now PRC-Saltillo). This was the first word-based Minspeak program on the market and Bruce Baker, the developer, was field testing the software with several individuals who needed AAC in the Pittsburgh area. I was fascinated by the organization of the system and how quickly Jennifer was learning to talk with it.   

There were not many opportunities to learn more about AAC while I was in school, but I knew that I wanted to specialize in this aspect of the field. My first job out of college was at an institutional facility for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Connecticut. I was not well prepared for working with these individuals. However, I used the skills I developed to introduce some residents to manual communication boards. 

A year later, a huge opportunity came my way. The director of the Connecticut Center of Augmentative Communication was moving out of state, and I was referred for the position. This was a program that operated out of a local United Cerebral Palsy (UCP) facility, which was also a private school. These were big shoes to fill for someone who had just completed her Clinical Fellowship! I will admit that it was trial by fire, and I had to learn a lot in the beginning. Not that I ever stopped learning. I attended conferences and workshops and sought out representatives from the AAC companies in my area to learn from them and to establish connections. I was able to build up the program to the point where I was providing AAC consultative services throughout the state.   

After getting married and deciding to start a family, I realized that I would have much more flexibility if I worked for myself or sub-contracted with other agencies. Incredibly, the director of the UCP center gave me the okay to continue working with the districts I had served there. I continued my AAC services and began to provide assistive technology consultation as well. 

After having my own consulting practice for several years, I was contracted by New Haven Area Cooperative Educational Services to provide assistive technology and AAC services to the school districts in New Haven County. I found the consultative model to be frustrating in that there was little carryover of services for students when I was only “popping in” every couple of months. At that point, I started to look for a school district where I could provide focused services. 

In the mid-2000s I was contracted by the Stamford Public School system. It was a large city district with a lot of needs. Again, my learning continued as I worked alongside the special education director to meet the needs of the students. This was one of my favorite positions and I’d likely still be there today had my husband and I decided not to move back to the Pittsburgh area. 

I’d say that my career came full circle when I began to work with Bruce Baker again in 2011. He was just getting a formal monthly seminar, the Pittsburgh AAC Language Seminar Series, off the ground and I was one of two clinical consultants who supported Bruce during the seminars. When his health began to decline, Tracy Kovach and I took on the role of presenting Bruce’s content. Over the years, we have added to the PALSS content to bring a clinical perspective to Bruce’s brilliant content of core vocabulary, language acquisition, and motor planning.   

Sadly, Bruce passed away in 2020. Since that time, I have been honored to carry the mantle of the Minspeak message – first while still at his company, Semantic Compaction Systems, and beginning in 2022 as part of the Minspeak Academy, a division of the education and training department at PRC-Saltillo.

-Debbie Witkowski, MA, CCC-SLP

Brittany’s AAC Story

Brittany’s graduate school experience coincided with the exciting release of the TouchChat® app making AAC tangible for many more people. Read more about the moment when she fell in love with AAC.

I started my AAC journey in graduate school. I had always been interested in helping individuals with more complex needs, but I thought I wanted to venture into swallowing. That is, until I took an AAC course and had a practicum with several AAC communicators. TouchChat had just been released for the iPad®, so everyone was talking about how revolutionary this communication app was for individuals who were nonspeaking. AAC was not new, but the fact that TouchChat was more tangible for people than a dedicated device was exciting.

I then had a practicum at a high school, and my supervisor worked primarily with students who were non-speaking. Many of these students used an AAC system to communicate. I thought this was so cool! Many of the students I was working with had never had access to AAC prior to my supervisor introducing it to them. This was so disheartening for me: that these young people had to wait 14+ years to communicate with someone verbally! This is the moment where I really fell in love with AAC. Giving a voice to someone for the first time was so rewarding! A lot of our students used Minspeak and WordPower® systems, so this is where I also fell in love with PRC-Saltillo.

After graduate school I went into private practice where I helped start the AAC program at an outpatient speech, PT, and OT clinic. I then moved on to work at a center for children and young adults with autism spectrum disorder. This is where I further developed my AAC skills. When I started working at this center, only one of my clients had a speech-generating device. When I left over five years later, over 75% of my caseload was using AAC to communicate. I fully immersed myself in learning all I could about AAC, and made sure teachers, parents and other care providers knew the same information I did to help our students succeed. Free trainings from PRC-Saltillo were so helpful, as well as (what was then) the Pittsburgh AAC and Language Seminar Series (PALSS) put on by Semantic Compaction Systems. You can now learn the same PALSS content online through Minspeak Academy on AAC Learning Journey. I also had a lot of help from my PRC-Saltillo consultant! I learned so much about implementing AAC from her.

Although my journey with AAC may have started earlier than others, I never looked back. Being able to give someone a voice is the most precious gift I could ever give.

-Brittany Toney, M.A., CCC-SLP

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