Category Archives: Transformation

Self-Determination, We Have Lift Off! (thank you iPad)

My brother, David is a habitual watcher. He was always this way. As children, I would sit and play and he would sit and watch me play. He was never interested in fictitious, symbolic, or representative things. Only real people, real interactions.

Over Christmas, I introduced David to the iPad. David and I played Virtuoso piano together. To sit and play piano together, this was really something. Through tapping on the screen, having tones emit, David found a way to interact with me and I with him. And each time I think about that day I think “Forty-some years, and that was the first time we had a “back and forth” conversation.”

Once I handed David the iPad, we tried a variety of “aps” or applications. Movies, iTunes, games, piano, AAC communications. Our roles reversed. I was the observer and he, the primary doer. David engaged with the surface of the iPad easily.

Historically, there have been many barriers to using AAC devices: (Source) This includes policy, practice, knowledge, skill, and access barriers. My brother, David, was impacted by all these barriers. Throughout his school years, barriers existed suggesting that his intellectual disability precluded the need for him to have AAC. The degree of fine motor skills precluded the capability to have AAC. The cost was prohibitive for our family to trial, and forget about buying (when the policy barriers precluded it). It was these same barriers that eventually made David a prime candidate for “Facilitated Communications.” Facilitated communications was considered a breakthrough method of communications for individuals who did not speak verbally. I was living out of the area at the time and I remember when they called me and put David on the phone and “he” said “I love you.” I was at work and cried like a baby. And then I thought, a) hey I have 8 other siblings and I know “us” — the first thing all of us do is tell a joke–we do not tell emotions! and b) who’s pressing the buttons?

So back to the iPad. Who’s pressing the buttons? No keyboards, no pens, no pointers, only a beautiful surface area. No requirements for fine motor skills. Can’t tap? Slide! Can’t use a single finger? Use your hand and swipe! ). Graphics? Traditional symbolic pictures sure, if you want them. But real pictures or even videos can be used instead! Audio? Synthesized voice? Sure, if you want it. But how ’bout real voice? Mom’s who record for their sons — you can “bend the pitch” so that mom’s voice now sounds like a male voice — you can record and yet give your child their own voice. It has an easy touch, crystal clear visuals, and terrific audio. And David can hold it in his own hands. It is light, portable. He can hold it. It can rest on the table. It can be his. For the first time AAC can be small enough and customizable enough to be “personal.” And the myriad of aps means that this device can be truly an external extension of David’s unique self. And still “standard” enough for others to understand and interact with him without a PhD!

I admit that I’m a steadfast zealot. Why?

Yesterday, my sister Mary and I had an iPad meeting with David’s provider. 8 people + David, Mary, and I. There were several people in the room who had not been present for the previous discussion and so, although David was taking a break out of the room, we decided to review the background for the meeting. I explained that Mary and I had thoughtfully loaded applications on the iPad that were specific to David, his potential likes (we all get bored or change our minds), and also specific to the way he uses his hands. For example, every ap had a very large surface area and therefore did not require finger pointing precision. Full-hand gestures would work equally well. If David were to place his hand on the screen, a response would happen. And the screen would also pick up micro-gestures: small, almost invisible movements in David’s hands. These micro-gestures might come from small twitches or they may also be David’s reaction and engagement with his environment. Also, through the applications — even non AAC aps — David could make choices about what he likes and doesn’t like (self determination!) and communicate that to you!

We sent around Koi Pond for everyone in the room to touch and feel. Touch the screen and “splash!” it is as if you traipsed your hand through the water of a pond. Around the table it went” Splish-splashing all along the way. David returned to the room just as the iPad came back around. I put the iPad in front of David and explained the koi pond. David had not seen Koi Pond before. I traipsed my fingers on the screen: splish-splash. I gently placed his hand on the screen (splash) and on top of his hand I tapped my fingers. I tapped my fingers on the screen: splish-splash. I left him and continued talking. David sat there. His hands did not appear to be moving and yet we heard quite a volley of splishing and splashing. Micro-gestures! Eyebrows raised all around the room (including me and Mary!)

Another application around the table: Pocket Drums. Thumping, bonging, Binging all around the room. Back to David. David had not seen Pocket Drums before. I tap the screen: Thump, Thump, Bing!. I place his hand on the screen: Thimp-thump. I tap the screen again: Thump, Thump, Bing! and leave him alone. We continue talking. Micro-gestures. Thump…. Thump…. Thump…. David smiles. He lifted his left pointer finger high in the air and dropped it. THUMP! He smiled. Everyone stops talking and watches David. He does it again repeatedly. THUMP THUMP THUMP. He laughs. He starts tapping all his fingers — individually! Thump, Thimp, Bing, Bong! David is laughing out loud and brings his other hand over and is playing drums. He is laughing, smiling, shaking his head — David LOVES it. And the room bursts out in joyous laughter.

We all calm down and keep talking. I pull out virtuoso piano. It can play a duet — a keyboard on each side of the screen. Something David and I had enjoyed doing before. I put it down in front of David. No one is talking. Everyone is watching. I tap C, I put Davids hand on the keyboard. F. C chord badly played by Katy. David hands move. Notes play and then he is agitated. He is shaking his head. Then his body. Then he starts yelling. David is one unhappy unhappy man! “David,” I say, “this is simple, you don’t like it so we can just push it away.” I push it away. He lifts his hands off and looks at it. Gives it a little push. He looks up at me, smiles, and relaxes. Everyone around the room has an “Oh” face.

That’s what I’m TALKING about: COMMUNICATIONS. Self-Determination, we have lift off!

Buy it! Buy TWO. Get on board the iPad train buy one for your child, family member AND one for a friend. It will be worth every penny you saved up. Get involved, get your school involved, get your provider involved. And, let’s get Apple involved!!!

Yours in community,

Conversation: A Simple Yes/No Will Do

While on the road for the Envisioning the Future Summits,  I learned quite a bit about AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communications). These are “devices” that sit like a tray in front of an individual. The individual can use an eye gaze, some sort of typing, word selection, etc to pick and choose their way through a vocabulary to communicate with to other individuals.  Sometimes the process of communicating with these alternative forms of communication can be quite cumbersome especially if the recipient of the communications a) doesn’t understand how the process works or b) is in a real hurry. I met one woman and in trying to carry on a conversation with her, her assistant said: “Shorthand is to ask yes/no questions. She can move her eyes to signal yes/no.” The woman and I had quite a detailed conversation using only yes/no and avoided the AAC all together. I’m not saying avoiding the AAC was the right way to go. But I am saying that learning both options was an important process for me. And I realized just how much we can talk just with yes/no responses.

Flash forward to this week. I spent a couple days with my brother David. David is not verbal. Yes, he communicates. He vocalizes. He lets you know when he is unhappy. He laughs when he is happy. But, I wondered, instead of happy or unhappy could it be possible that David could answer YES or NO questions? David is unable to use flash cards. Those flat pictures or words have no meaning to him. But, David does respond to verbal requests. I wondered…

I never tested a DynaVox or some such with David. These devices cost between $5000 and $10000. Today I realized I have an iPad! I heard several people at these summits mention that there is software available for the iPad. I went on line and queried AAC for iPad and came up with several options:

  • Proloquo2go. Costs $189.00. Thats a good price compared to $5000.00.
  • TaptoTalk. $99.00.
  • MyTalkTools. Cost $34.99. Yes, that’s right, under $35.
  • YesNo. Cost $1.99. Yes, you got it under $2.00! Two options: yes and no. Man/woman/boy/girl voices. And the option to program in other pairs of words and record the text!

Here was my big moment today. I simplified the MyTalk so that it only showed 2 options on the screen. Yes and No. I mean, lets just start with the basics.

“David, would you like something to drink?” (I hit yes, I hit no. I did this repeatedly and then showed David how to do it. Repeatedly.) “David, would you like something to drink?” David extended a finger and pointed. I showed him he had to tap the screen. Tap, went David. “Yes.” I hurriedly got up and got him something to drink. No, I didn’t sit and offer 25 options. Yes, he said, and I wanted to get something in his hand immediately.

I tried this for an hour. Various questions. Yes/No responses. David sometimes answered yes, sometimes no. It was getting late. I cleaned up all the glasses and other things I brought him from the yes/no questions. Time for one last question: “David, its time to go home. Do you want to go home?” He looked up at me and shook his head. He reached up to the iPad and hit “No.” Was this a fluke? I moved the iPad so this wasn’t a ouiji answer, guided by me. “David, do you want to go home?” He looked up at me, reached out with a finger and hit the iPad. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. “no, no, no, no.” Forget about going home, iPad aside, we went to the living room and sat on the couch. I had nothing to say.

My brother is 48. I am 46. This is the first time we had a conversation of any sort. It was a really big day. Thanks to the iPad.


I have to figure out how to buy one for him a) without worrying about theft and b) teaching staff to use it with him. Perhaps this is our 2011 goal.

Now I wonder… how do we get these devices in the hands of every school aged child with developmental disabilities that could benefit? Is there a donation program? I found one for children with autism: HollyRod Foundation. I saw some individual classrooms requesting them in But, come on, this is perfect for Best Buddies, Special Olympics, or the Arc to pick up. If you hear of anything like this, let me know.

I’m obviously not the first to report this news. All I can say is when it happens to you, you’re the one who becomes speechless. Other articles can be found here


Advice from a Sibling to Parents (Developmental Disabilities)

Siblings: David and Kate

A friend of mine asked me what I thought about a residential placement option he saw. He’s thinking of the future for his children with Developmental Disabilities. After a very long-winded response email, I decided “Hey I should put this to perspective to greater use.”  How bout a little advice from “the other side.” Honestly, let’s put it out there. Your number one worry is “what will happen to my child with developmental disabilities after I’m gone?” And the follow-up “how can I ensure their safety.” Yeah, many of you talk about big dreams for children but really, in your guts, you think “safety.” ( Some of you, secretly are going one step further and you’re thinking “surrogate.” After all, no one can love them like you do, right? How can you find a place that will care enough?) As a sibling after 15 years I can tell you that I wonder “what if I should die before my brother?” And “how can I ensure his safety?”

From the vantage point of 16 years AD (after death). Knowing what I know now, here’s what I wish I could have told my parents. Mom, Dad, there are certain rules of nature that you simply have to acknowledge. I know it’s hard because of the implications. But they’re real, let’s talk about them.

The rules of nature

  1. There is no permanency. Whatever solution you find — residential, day program, employment, etc — it cannot be permanent.  
  2. There are no guarantees. However much you plan, the unexpected will emerge.
  3. Walls do not protect. They hide.
  4. Even children with the most severe disabilities will have to cut the cord. Ultimately they will leave the nest.
  5. Risk exists for everyone. There is no way to eliminate all risk for your child. You have to get comfortable that there is a level of risk you must take.
  6. I am a sibling. Stop worrying about giving me an “obligation” or a “burden.” You have given me a brother. Family takes care of family.
  7. Given these rules of nature I cannot promise you that I will keep everything just the way you set it up. I’m sorry. I’ll keep it that way as long as possible but then at a certain point I am going to have to make changes. I promise to be mindful of your values and David’s needs and desires.

Given all of the above…. As parents, its expecting to much of yourself to find the “golden solution.” It’s not feasible. So, let’s go with you’re finding the best solution today.  What is the most important thing to do?  Develop a “circle.”  Develop a multi-generational social circle surrounding your child. Ensure that you are not the only person in your child’s life who is not paid to be there.

Take it from me. It took me 15 years to understand this simple point. Inclusion isn’t about a house or a trip to the park. It is not about how many times you “get into” the neighborhood. Its not something I can write 5 goals for on an IDT plan. It simply means that an individual is not alone. That they have their own “community/ies” (friends, family, people with shared interests and goals). These people are not paid to be part of the community. To be disenfranchised?  To be on the outside of communities versus on the inside? This is what makes a person invisible. Being invisible makes a person vulnerable.

Surely, as a parent, you can understand this. You’re worried about who could possibly replace you? NO ONE CAN REPLACE YOU. It will take a village of people to care as much as you care. To replace the eyes on the back of your head. The one thing you can do (do early, do often, never stop doing) is build the village. If your child grows up living within the village you build, they will always be a valued member of the community and a derivative fact is they will be less at risk, more fulfilled, and reach their full potential.

What parent wouldn’t want that? Start building now.

Sanity “Moments of Truth”

When I worked in business, we had these things called “moments of truth” — the moments when the business “touched” the end customer. And that touch — regardless of who did it, told the “truth” about the company. About how they work, what they value, how good their processes are, how flexible they are dealing with problems, etc. These “moments of truth,” through time, meant that a business could be a raging successl or suffer horrible losses because of how in tuned they were with their end customers.  As times have changed and we’re now well into the “Information Age,” we have 1000 ways to learn about those we serve and various means to maintain this information over time and build upon it.

“Customer-engagement is critical for the success of an organization and in a knowledge-driven economy, the power of information cannot be underestimated. ” (Fast Company)

The key to achieving emotive success is understanding the customers’ needs and expectations. By doing so, companies can identify the most important interactions – “the moments of truth” – and prioritize delivery accordingly. The IBM customer experience framework integrates four key dimensions: emotive performance, products and services, tactile performance, and channels and touch points” (IBM)

I’m in a new field, now.  A field in support of families and individuals with developmental disabilities. Many in this field are supposed to be “advocates,” who must manage needs and expectations on both sides (individual/system) and must do so with an emotive connectedness.  As in business, there are some who are in touch with the individuals that define their work and there are some who are just  in touch with their work — the day-to-day tasks without sight of the people they are impacting. There are some who are, unfortunately, removed from the day-to-day lives of these individuals. And then, like customer-service agents and sales people in business, there are some who got too close to the fire for too long and burnt out.

I have the best job in the world. Every single day I have the opportunity to talk to an individual or family member. I do not have the luxury to talk only to the ones I know. Or the ones I like. Or the ones who share my opinions and beliefs. The phone rings, I answer. Someone passes me on the street, I talk to them. We’re hosting listening sessions and I work to get people with various perspectives out to talk. “Let’s hear it, let’s hear what you have to say, what your life is about, and what you’re concerned about.” And these are all moments of truth.  Two observations:

  • We’ve stopped listening. Just like the political landscape of today, we’ve stopped listening to what people are saying. Instead we paint them in a white hat or a black hat and put them in camps “for” or “against” our perspective. We need to listen. We have got to have meaningful dialogue about difficult topics. In business we say it takes “5-why’s” to get to the root cause of an issue.
  • We have a generational divide. The “old-timers” were here in the beginning. Pioneers of the movement. They remember a time when there was nothing. No rights to anything. There are the “new-timers” who know nothing other than having rights. For the new-timers, IDEA has always been around. The old-timers fear that things can go back to the way they were before. The new-timers don’t know there was a “before” — its only theoretical.

Sanity Rally on the Hill

Last week I met a guy at the bus stop named “Joe.” He said he was in the Special Olympics and the last soccer game of the season was this weekend. I asked if he was sad the season was over. “Yes, really sad,” but he was smiling.  “You don’t look sad,” I said. “Well, that’s because Basketball starts next weekend!”

We continued chatting on the bus ride. Joe lives at home but has a job 5-days a week in food services with the Marines. He goes to the neighborhood diner on Saturday mornings. And in the middle of this conversation he explained that he was very afraid because he has a surgery coming up. He remembers a time when he reacted badly to getting a needle (kicked out) and as a result he was thrown to the ground, face down, with someone sitting on him and forcibly restrained. Hmmm. This conversation had a lot to digest. In one conversation, one person, we were trying to satisfy all levels of Maslow’s hierarchy simultaneously! Psychology, Safety… Self-actualization.

We have to create opportunity for “moments of truth.” We cannot close off perspectives we don’t like. We must continue to talk. We must understand our common grounds. We cannot ever stop listening.

What’s your truth?

Transformation on the Hill: Cass Sunstein

July 22, 2010. I had the opportunity to attend a session “Implications of Behavioral Research for Social Welfare Research and Policy.” It’s one of those weird cosmic events that I started a new “position” seemingly unrelated to my past life and yet one of my first opportunities was a direct link from my work at Bank of America and this new life of Social Welfare. How weird is that? For any of my BAC colleagues out there who work(ed) with me at MIT and the Center for Future Banking, this session demonstrates how the behavioral research from financial services can be directly applied to social welfare programs. Things like “stickiness” associated with loyalty programs could also be associated with social welfare programs. I think you guys should hop on this!

Anyway, for those not in the field of banking, financial services, or economics, there was still some interesting information presented at this session. In particular from guest speaker Cass Sunstein, the OIRA Administrator in the Office of Management and Budget.

Before becoming Administrator, Cass R. Sunstein was the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. Mr. Sunstein graduated in 1975 from Harvard College and in 1978 from Harvard Law School magna cum laude. After graduation, he clerked for Justice Benjamin Kaplan of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and Justice Thurgood Marshall of the U.S. Supreme Court, and then he worked as an attorney-advisor in the Office of the Legal Counsel of the U.S. Department of Justice. He was a faculty member at the University of Chicago Law School from 1981 to 2008.

Mr. Sunstein has testified before congressional committees on many subjects, and he has been involved as an advisor in constitution-making and law reform activities in a number of nations. A specialist in administrative law, regulatory policy, and behavioral economics, Mr. Sunstein is author of many articles and a number of books, including After the Rights Revolution (1990), Risk and Reason (2002), Laws of Fear: Beyond the Precautionary Principle (2005), Worst-Case Scenarios (2007), and Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (with Richard H. Thaler, 2008).

Sunstein highlighted a few of the government changes being lead by the current administration. Here’s a taste-tease overview of the changes:

  1. Defaults. “System” defaults should be set in the benefit of the consumer. For example the Affordable Care Act — the default is opt in for Health Care and must take action to opt out (a reversal)
  2. Simplification. Federal systems and processes should be simplified so that the target audience has a reasonable chance to fulfill their need through the system/process. For example, Federal Student Aid — highly complex now in simplification (tax data automatically populates FHFSA. SSI using a debit card.
  3. An attention to how people process information. For example, summary disclosures that are easier to read and comprehend. An expectation that materials are clear, succinct, and conspicuous. Effectively disclosed. For example, OSHA.GOVE — now within weeks of any death, everyone sees it.
  4. Social Norms. Material incentives matter but people are also influenced by social norms. The government has an obligation to understand those norms and to make decisions based on those as well as the data. For example there is a presidential injunction baring texting by federal employees while driving. Additionally, social influence can be contagious and using social influence for the “good” is a necessary incentive (for example, dealing with obesity)
  5. Cost/Benefit. The current administration’s decision making will not be based on “dogma, intuition, and anecdotes” but rather in an evidentiary fashion through humanized cost-benefit analysis. All presentations should include an assessment of benefits, uncertainties, and alternatives. Monetary equivalents do not tell us everything we need to know. We have to be aware of the ethics (fairness/equity, impact to future generations, and distributions).
  6. Open government. Knowledge must be dispersed. “sunlight improves practises, transparency is a powerful disinfectant. Examples: RECALLS.GOV, DATA.GOV,  the IT Dashboard.

So what?

  • In your strategic planning process you should not underestimate the implications of these changes. There are big things happening in DC and this type of change is pervasive. I know the government moves slowly but I can tell you this stuff is moving faster than you’d expect.
  • Also related to strategic planning, this is illustrative of how process can be as strategic as product.