Is the iPad the Newest AAC Device?

Hunter Harrison uses iPad

Hunter Harrison, a 5-year-old from Nicholasville, Ky., uses an iPad to help him speak.

Everyone knows that the iPad is the latest lightweight gadget for using apps, reading magazines and watching movies. But did you know the device is now being used to help children with communication disabilities speak?

Schools in Kentucky have employed the iPad to do just that. Applications can be built and customized for children with a wide range of disabilities.

In fact, Jane Kleinert, associate professor in the Division of Communication Sciences and Disorders in the University of Kentucky College of Health Sciences, and colleague Jacqui Kearns, of the University of Kentucky’s Human Development Institute (HDI), investigated the need for augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) in multiple states across the country. Their research showed that less than half of children who would benefit from AAC have it. The two are working to develop communication systems for children with the most significant disabilities, supported with a grant from the Kentucky Department of Education, administered through HDI.

Through that initiative and funds from a UK Commonwealth Collaborative grant, 5-year-old Hunter Harrison has received an iPad equipped with Proloquo2Go, an AAC app, on loan. Hunter has developmental delays in his motor abilities because of a neuromuscular disorder; he also uses a wheelchair. Thanks to the iPad and weekly therapy sessions at the University of Kentucky, Hunter is learning to pronounce works and string together sentences.

"When Hunter first came he did not use his voice very much, so we used the AAC all the time," Kleinert says. "We would ask him to say what the device was saying at the same time. As he has progressed with his oral speech, we don’t use the AAC quite as much."

Hunter’s parents have notice a big difference in his communication skills.

"Before we started, we could barely get just the normal first words that most kids say, like 'mom' and 'dad,' ” said Melissa Harrison, Hunter’s mother. “Now you can give him a book, and he can sit down and read it clear enough for you to understand what he’s trying to say."

Hunter starts first grade in the fall, and the iPad will enable him to stay in a regular classroom at an appropriate age and grade level, says Kleinert.

Although many other children with communication disabilities could benefit from an iPad, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the largest funder of AAC, restricts funding to "dedicated instruments" specifically designed for communication. The iPad doesn’t qualify, even though the dedicated AAC devices are more expensive.