Because this time, the stakes are high.
This time, it’s my daughter’s voice on the line. Literally.
My daughter, Maya, will turn four in May and she can’t speak. The only word that she can consistently say with 100% clarity is “done”—which, while helpful, isn’t really enough to functionally communicate. When Maya was two and a half we introduced her to the iPad, and we’ve danced with AAC (augmentative and alternative communication) ever since. We experimented with a few communication apps, but nothing was a perfect fit. After an extensive search for the perfect app, we found it: Speak for Yourself. Simple and brilliant, we saw that it had the potential to serve Maya into adulthood, but was also simple enough for her to start using immediately.
And she liked it. And it worked. And I started to have little flashes of the future, in which she could rapidly tap out phrases and ideas and tell me more and more of the secret thoughts that fill her head—the ones that I’m hungry to hear and she’s dying to share but her uncooperative mouth just can’t get out.
My kid is learning how to “talk.” It’s breathtaking.
But now Speak for Yourself in under fire, and from a surprising (to an AAC outsider) or not-so-surprising (to an AAC insider) source. They’re being sued by Semantic Compaction Systems and Prentke Romich Company, big names in the AAC world. SCS and PRC allege that Speak for Yourself is infringing on their patents. I’m going to be honest: I don’t know about patents and infringement, and I’m not going to get into debates about the legal merits of the case, because that’s a conversation in which I would quickly drown.
And if you were in my shoes, you would see that the legal part isn’t the part that matters.
Here’s what matters: It’s a very logical assumption (confirmed by the AAC professionals that I’ve spoken with) that if SCS/PRC win this lawsuit, they will eliminate Speak for Yourself, the app that my 3 year old is working her damnedest to learn.
They will remove it from the market. It will disappear. They have no reason to keep it alive and one giant reason to kill it . . . money. PRC can make around $9,000 by selling one of their communication devices, and only a few hundred per iPad app. Hardware profits annihilate software profits.
Lest you think that I’m unfairly anti-communication device or pro-app, I point you to this post, in which I declared that an iPad app wouldn’t be good enough for Maya, that I was determined only a full communication device would serve her properly. Shortly after writing that post we met with reps from PRC and Dynavox to explore their devices. We were disappointed to see that the devices were too big (both literally and figuratively) for Maya. It was clear that in a few years PRC’s device would fit, but I didn’t want to wait. I sent emails out (to users, AAC experts, and company reps) asking about whether PRC was developing an app for the iPad, and the answer was a clear no.
I went on to learn that customers have been requesting an app for quite some time from PRC, but they seem to have no interest in joining the iPad market, much to the dismay of the users. And why not? Why not make an app that could be used by some of their nonverbal consumers? Why not create a more affordable alternative to the large devices, something that could conceivably bring a voice to many, many more nonverbal children and adults? I want to think that it’s not just about the money . . . but it seems to clearly be just about the money.
Interestingly, PRC’s mission statement starts with “We Believe Everyone Deserves A Voice.” Perhaps “We Believe Everyone Who Purchases Our Devices Deserves A Voice” or “We Believe Everyone Except Those Needing An Affordable App Deserves a Voice” might be more appropriate alternatives.
Speak for Yourself is a clever, unique app that presents thousands of words in a simple, accessible way. It’s unlike anything that I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a lot. The creators are speech therapists and AAC specialists, and they have been helpful and supportive and enthusiastic when I’ve reached out to them. They seem to be sincerely invested in helping new users learn and use the app, and have been excited when I’ve emailed them about our little successes. They seem to embrace “everyone deserves a voice” in a much more legitimate way than the plantiff in this case does. (And I don’t work for them, by the way, I just believe in their product and what it can do for kids like Maya.)
Is it possible that SCS/PRC could win this case and keep the Speak for Yourself app alive? Yes . . . but not likely. Is it possible that SCS/PRC could win this case, kill Speak for Yourself, and replace it with their own iPad app? Yes . . . but not likely. Is it possible that SCS/PRC could lose this case, that Speak for Yourself will win and the playing field will be leveled in a kind of amazing way? Yes. Yes it is. And boy, am I hopeful.
For my daughter, the bottom line isn’t about what happens in the courtroom, it’s about what happens to her app. Her iPad, equipped with its special case and Speak for Yourself, is now her communication device. She doesn’t care about who is making the money, or patent law, or big guys vs. little guys . . . she cares about being able to tell me that she wants milk instead of water, or she wants to go to the zoo, or about who she played with at school.
She wants to be able to talk.
And shame on you, PRC, for threatening to take away the closest thing that she’s ever had to a voice.