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by Rosemary Musachio, Accessibility Analyst

Low Tech Defined
Since I was six years old, I have been using Low Tech Augmentative Communication (LTAC). LTAC does not require any kind of electronics and anyone can make an LTAC device. All an individual needs is cardboard, a magic marker and clear contact paper. That’s how my speech therapist made my E-tran chart. It was my first method of communicating with the world. The layout of the E-tran chart was based on my lack of pointing ability. It had six groups of letters and numbers, with each group having seven characters. Each group had a big letter on top and smaller letters below it. As I struggle to remember (after all, it has been forty years), spelling a word meant positioning my hand where each letter was in the group. To spell “cat”, for example, I would do the following:

1. Put my hand on the bottom left of the first group for “C”
2. Put my hand on the top center of the first group for “A”
3. Put my hand on the top right of the eighth group for “T”

Eventually, my speech therapist discovered that the lower knuckle of my right thumb stuck out when I made a fist, thus a faster pointing method than the one I was using. Around this time, she also learned about Blissymbols. Created by a prison inmate in Canada, Blissymbols were like hieroglyphics but with rationales, so very young children or those with learning disabilities could remember them. Each Blissymbol had its associated word above it, allowing those unfamiliar with the system to read it as the Blissymbol user pointed to it. Blissymbols came in sheets of 100, 200, 400 and 800 symbols. It also included the alphabet so I could spell any word that wasn’t on the board. My speech therapist would cut and paste a sheet to a game board to be folded and placed in my book bag. To this day, I still use a version of the Blissymbols, only without the symbols.

High Tech Defined
When I attended Cleveland State University, I started using High Tech Augmentative Communication (HTAC). An HTAC device is electronic and provides synthesized voice. My HTAC device was called a Light Talker. Each button on the device could be activated with an infrared light. Because I couldn’t hold and manipulate the infrared light pointer, a rehab engineer created an iron-like object that I would drag across the Light Talker surface and stop at the icon I wanted. Sometimes a phrase would require two icons for the device to say it. For instance, I had to activate the “sun” icon and the “elephant” icon to say “I’m happy to meet you”. Users of the Light Talker and other such devices must have photographic minds to memorize all of those combinations.

Low and High Tech Compared
Like anything else, both forms of Augmentative Communication have advantages and disadvantages. For instance, as mentioned above, an LTAC device such as a word or picture board does not require batteries or electricity. Therefore, the user does not have to worry that it would stop working or break down. When I used the Light Talker, it sometimes stopped working in the middle of my forming a sentence and I’d look helplessly at the person with whom I was communicating until he/she finally understood the stupid thing died. That same helpless look would also occur when the plug came out from the pointing device.
An LTAC device also is portable, so users can bring it wherever they want. Airport security does not need to disassemble it as they would an HTAC device to check for explosives. LTAC boards are also very suitable for hospital settings when an electronic communicator may interfere with medical equipment.

Yet, an LTAC device can have its drawbacks. Sometimes people do not know where the user points to on the communication board (In this case pasting a note on it explaining how the user points would be helpful). Another disadvantage of using a low tech communication board is that users cannot communicate with people standing at a distance. They must be close enough for the user to read what he is indicating on the board. That proximity is fine for intimate conversations, but not very well suited for something like asking a sales clerk a question.

Instead, an HTAC device would be more practical for situations such as the latter where users communicate with strangers. A voice synthesizer would also be ideal if the user were communicating with someone who has a visual impairment and could not see words and letters on a low tech board. Even if the user were several feet from another person, he could still communicate. In addition, individuals with speech impairments can use HTAC devices to give presentations. Nowadays the speech quality of many HTAC devices is much more understandable than when I used the Light Talker. Users can also program entire speeches into them.

Up to the User
Choosing an LTAC or HTAC device depends on the needs and abilities of the user. It can also depend on financial means. While an LTAC device may only take a few dollars to make, purchasing an HTAC device can cost several thousand. Ideally, persons with speech impairments should have both LTAC and HTAC available to them to use in different situations to facilitate effective communication.