We were incredibly fortunate to secure this exclusive interview with David Niemeijer: founder and CEO of Assistive Ware - makers of a wide range of outstanding tech products to support SEN learners.
Tell us a little about yourself and your background.
By education I am an environmental geographer with a PhD in Environmental and Agricultural Sciences. However, I have been developing Assistive Technology software for the last 15 years. First side-by-side with my academic work, later full time.
What led to the formation of Assistive Ware back in the year 2000?
About 17 years ago I got side-tracked from my academic career because a friend of mine had a serious car accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down. He was a graphic designer and I developed KeyStrokes, an on-screen keyboard for him that he could use not just to type, but also to control Photoshop key-click combinations. He now uses his Mac with a HeadMouse Extreme to control the cursor and the KeyStrokes on-screen keyboard for typing. By the way, he is also the guy that designed the AssistiveWare company logo, the tattooed salamander, using his head not his hands.
Seeing how KeyStrokes changed my friend’s life I decided to make it available for download on the internet as freeware. All over the world people began using it and emailing me with feature requests. It soon became clear to me that if I were to find the time to add all those features I would have to reduce my work at the university to half-time and would need to charge for the software. In 2000 I started with what became AssistiveWare. Four years later developing assistive technology had become my life. Sure, I loved my academic work, but I could make a much bigger difference in people’s lives by developing software. Initially my focus was on universal access software that enabled people who could not use a mouse or keyboard to access their Mac and use the same applications as anyone else. Later, solutions for people with speech impairments and vision impairments were added.
After Apple introduced the iPhone and later the iPad AssistiveWare’s focus shifted more towards mobile solutions for people who cannot speak; but our interest in accessibility and education remained. The affordability of iPad compared to traditional dedicated communication solutions opened up high-tech AAC to many more individuals. The popularity of the iPhone and iPad in combination with our apps has allowed AssistiveWare to grow from a one-man show to a company with a team of professionals working on developing, marketing and supporting applications that make a difference in people’s lives.
Are you finding that with the advent of mobile technology, more and more educators are starting to realise the power that lies in supporting SEN students trough technology?
I think especially the iPad really struck a nerve with educators. Traditional computers require complicated eye-hand coordination as you move the mouse over the desk and watch the cursor move over the screen. The iPad provides a much more natural and intuitive interface. Apps are generally also more focussed on one specific task and easier to use. It is just a great tool for young children and older students alike. Great quality, a good price, and low weight did the rest. I think the iPad is just such a good fit that if you see one SEN student using it you are sold and need to have it for your SEN students too.
Have you had any particular success stories that you are most proud of?
Actually, we hear so many success stories about kids who were not able to speak. But thanks to our Proloquo2Go communication app they are for the first time able to express themselves, startle their teacher and impress their parents. These children are often so much brighter than they could show prior to having a way to express themselves verbally. Often behavioural issues diminish considerably too. It is just such a life-changer.
We have done a couple of video case studies and I would like to share two of those with you as I believe these really express the power of communication:
This is a video in which a mother explains how excited she is that her son now is able to talk back to her:
This is a video of young girl with autism that blows away her teachers:
You gained a great deal of acclaim for Proloquo2Go. For those that are unfamiliar with it, could you explain why it was such an innovative piece of technology?
Proloquo2Go is an Augmentative and Alternative Communication(AAC) app. It is a symbol-based app that allows someone who cannot speak or is extremely difficult to understand to express himself by using the iPad as his voice. The user can construct sentences by pressing buttons that show a word and a symbol so, even if the user cannot read or write, he can still communicate.
Solutions like this have been around for a while, but these dedicated communication devices would typically cost anywhere from a couple of thousand dollars for a device with an iPod touch size screen to over 10 thousand dollars for a device with an iPad size screen.
When we released Proloquo2Go in April 2009 ripples went through the AAC industry. The level of mobility, the ease of use and the price point were unheard of. We supported the iPad the day the first one came out in April 2010, which was when things really took off. I think what has lead to so much acclaim for Proloquo2Go was that we were the first to deliver a full AAC solution on a consumer device, that we focussed so much on ease of use of the software and that we continue to improve and innovate. For example, until recently, kids were using adult Text to Speech voices to communicate, but in 2012 we released the first-ever natural-sounding children’s Text to Speech voices. You can find more about that here http://www.assistiveware.com/innovation/childrens-voices
We recently spotlighted your excellent Keedogo keyboard apps. We're they intended specifically for SEN students or just for all younger iPad users?
When Apple announced that it would allow third-party keyboards in iOS 8 we decided to design not one but three different keyboards.
Keedogo is designed for all young iPad users just learning to type. It has a big school-friendly font, a simplified key layout and it is colorful. But more importantly it does not disrupt the learning process with auto-corrections, auto-spacing, auto-capitalization, prediction and other features that more advanced users enjoy but that are counter-productive when you first learn to type.
Keedogo Plus offers all the features of Keedogo, but does add auto-spacing, auto-capitalization, and prediction, making this keyboard suitable for older students. It is designed to be used in primary education as well as in a SEN environment.
Keeble offers everything that Keedogo Plus does but adds many accessibility features making it ideal for SEN students. It offers features such as Hold Duration, Speak as you Type, Select on Release, and custom coloring options to support students with fine-motor challenges as well as those with vision impairments. Of course it also works with VoiceOver and SwitchControl.
How about your News-2-You app, how does that support SEN students?
The News-2-You app provides easy access on the iPad to an interactive version of the weekly symbol-supported news-2-you newspaper published by N2Y. This newspaper is used by SEN students across the USA. As some of the topics are quite US-specific it is not as popular in the UK or Australia though there are definitely schools and parents using it there as well. To support SEN students four different reading levels are offered starting with a few sentences and containing lots of symbols to full text paragraphs with a single image. It also provides Text to Speech to read the news and offers interactive exercises.
You also offer a range of training solutions. How can educators find out more about these?
We know that releasing a good product is only a small part of the job. If we want people to really use our products effectively and achieve maximum benefits we need to provide good training resources. For that reason we offer manuals, PDF tutorials and e-learning videos for many of our products on our web site: http://www.assistiveware.com/support
What's next? Have you got any new products in the pipeline you can tell us about?
We are always working on improving our existing products as well as developing new products. For example, for the iOS 8 keyboard we are working on adding support for other languages. We are also putting the final touches on a new Mac product called Wrise. Wrise is a word processor that makes reading and writing accessible for everyone. Designed to support reading comprehension and text composition, it can also be beneficial for struggling readers and writers as well as individuals with dyslexia. The idea is that with Text to Speech, word and sentence highlighting, zoom and EasyReading mode™ texts become more comprehensible and easier on the eyes. But, just as importantly, Speak as You Type, Word Prediction and speech tags significantly reduce writing efforts. We are expecting to release Wrise in January.
Finally, we will soon release version 2 of our text-based communication app Proloquo4Text, which is designed for people who can read and write but cannot speak.
Thanks for taking the time out to speak with us David, it's been incredibly insightful. We are amazed by the work you are doing to support kids with learning difficulties and the way you harness mobile technology.