Tapping this app gives special-needs users a voice

A new wave of App Store offerings, including Proloquo2Go, is gaining favor over clunky and uberexpensive devices for those with communication disorders--and making assistive technology cool.

Abbi Perets
Abbi Perets has been writing about technology and family and consumer issues for over ten years. Her work has been featured in print and on the Web, and she has taught courses on consumer and business electronics for HP, Sony, AOL, and other companies. Abbi has also written extensively about business technology for Tech Republic, Gantthead, and other tech sites. Abbi's passion for home appliances stems from the kitchen remodel she managed in her new home in Houston, TX where she lives with her husband and four children.
Abbi Perets
5 min read

At $189.99, Proloquo2Go is far from the cheapest App Store offering. Believe it or not, though, that price is actually a bargain--one a certain market is seriously happy to pay.

Screen personalization in Proloquo2Go
It's easy to personalize any screen in Proloquo2Go. Tap an icon to add items forspeech output to the speech bar at the top. Screenshot by Abbi Perets/CNET

The target market? Parents of kids with special needs--specifically those with autism, apraxia, and other disabilities that affect their communication. Many of these kids can't speak, or can't speak as fluently as their peers, but they understand what's going on around them, and they do have things they'd like to say.

Augmentative and alternative communication, or AAC, devices can supplement existing speech or replace speech that is not functional to improve social interaction, school performance, and--not for nothing--to give the kids a better sense of self-worth. Electronic AAC aids use picture symbols, letters, and/or words and phrases to create messages. Equipped with an AAC device, a child with cerebral palsy whose speech is limited suddenly has a way to tell you, "I want to go to Grandma's house this weekend!" or "I ate cake!"

Proloque2Go is just one of a growing number of AAC apps quickly gaining ground in the special-needs community. The reason is hardly surprising: before these apps came along, AAC devices could cost upward of $10,000--a cost many insurance companies would not cover. And for that hefty price, you got a heavy, clunky device that screamed, "I am different!" You would have looked cooler lugging an actual Commodore 64 around--though, at least then, you could have rocked the whole retro-chic look.

Kids aren't the only ones benefiting from these apps, of course--stroke and accident victims, as well as adults with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease) and other progressive degenerative diseases are also tapping into this growing market.

Proloquo2Go Categories
Tap Categories in Proloquo2Go to open a screen with 16 categories for drilling down. Edit using the pencil icon in the navigation bar. Screenshot by Abbi Perets/CNET

Part of the reason Proloque2Go and other similar apps work so well is that they offer Apple's familiar--and intuitive--iOS interface, relatively reasonable pricing, and the ease, portability, and cool factor of an iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad: tap items in a grid or list view to insert them into the Message window, then tap to speak. Tap and hold to access conjugations, plurals, or possessives. Edit standard items, add custom words or sentences, or customize settings such as icon size or background and text colors.

Users can also reorder items within categories, which--as the quick-start manual explains--is critical because users quickly learn where items are located and can concentrate more on what they want to "say."

"Proloquo2Go is supereasy to program," said Ellen Seidman, mom to Max, a 7-year-old with cerebral palsy. "In five minutes, I created a 'Weekend folder' with photos I'd copied from the Internet ('I visited Aunt Judy'; 'I went to a park with Daddy'; "I ate chocolate ice cream'; 'I found a ladybug in my house')."

Retelling events is an important developmental skill, and giving kids a way to do that--without having to rely on a speech therapist to program an expensive device--is truly a breakthrough for many families.

My developmentally disabled 6-year-old was still away at camp when I first got the app loaded on my iPod Touch, so I had to improvise. My (neurotypical) 4-year-old had the app up and running, with no prompting, in moments. He was ecstatic to request dessert, tell me that he needed to go to the bathroom, and insist that it was not bedtime (no dice), all by tapping on the Proloque2Go screen images.

Proloquo2Go Home screen
The Proloquo2Go Home screen is its launching pad. You can customize it to put the most frequently accessed categories just a tap away. You can access the home screen by clicking the Home icon on the navigation bar at the bottom, accessible in any screen. Screenshot by Abbi Perets/CNET

When my 6-year-old came back from camp, I recustomized the app for him--a process that took just a few minutes--and handed him the iPod. He jabbed at the icons and his face lit up when he made the device announce, "I really like garbage trucks." It was fascinating to watch him explore the different levels of icons, and within moments, he was requesting ones he felt were missing.

My son is verbal, although he doesn't have the same fluency of language that other children do, and using the device lets him catch up a bit. It's also modeling correct speech for him, and I heard him practicing his articulation, tapping an icon and repeating phrases, over and over again.

The developers do recommend that you ensure that your potential user has the necessary dexterity to use an iPhone before buying the app. You can also try out the app on a device at one of more than 140 resource centers in 43 states. Those centers--which include hospitals and academic organizations--all support the app, though they may not have formally endorsed it.

Proloquo2Go was first released by AssistiveWare, a Netherlands-based developer of assistive software, in April 2009. AssistiveWare wouldn't disclose exact download figures, but it did say downloads of Proloquo2Go run in the thousands. For the past year, it added, the app has hovered around the 60th ranking on the Top Grossing Apps list (No. 4 in Education)--due in part, of course, to its price, but also to strong daily sales.

You will find some similar iOS apps for less than $189.99--but none that exactly matches Proloquo2Go's capabilities and ease of use as an AAC device. And that's an important point. "For all the augmentative and therapeutic options out there, the truth is, if it's not something parents are into, it's just not going to work for a family," Seidman said.

Proloquo2Go grid view
Quickly navigate to the normal grid view, a view of recently used words or phrases, a keyboard for typing, or the options/settings screen. Screenshot by Abbi Perets/CNET

Adastrasoft's Expressionist ($9.99 in the App Store) holds 120 "common expressions" and uses a composite image system that's completely different from traditional AAC style. For example, a photograph of a shopping bag and a receipt are followed by a clip art arrow pointing to a photograph of money. Underneath that is a line art drawing of a person holding out his hands. That represents the oh-so-common expression "please refund it."

MyTalk, an app by the company of the same name, costs $39.99--sort of. For that price, you can create and edit unlimited message cells and boards with photos and images. But since editing on the iPhone can be tricky, you can optionally subscribe--for $9 per month or $75 per year--to an online Workspace, where creating and editing boards is more straightforward.

The app was created by the father of a child with special needs to give his son a voice. It's designed to be completely customized for every child--but that takes a significant amount of time. You can download a free Lite version (with limited cells)--and explore the online workspace for free for 30 days--so you can give it a try to see if it's right for your child.

Believe it or not, there are AAC apps that are more expensive than Proloquo2Go. EZ Speech from Gus Communication Devices rings up at $795--but not on the App Store. It's available solely from the developer's Web site, and it's designed for people who can't speak as a result of cancer, stroke, laryngectomy, or other conditions affecting speech. It's not picture-based, which makes it inappropriate for anyone with cognitive issues.

If your child has used (or would benefit from) a traditional AAC device, Proloquo2Go is an excellent, affordable alternative to those clunky, and more costly, pre-iPhone machines.