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Students Aim to Give Voice to Those Who Can’t Speak

Stop for a moment and think about your day. Have you spoken to a loved one? Have you spoken to a work colleague? Have you spoken — to anyone?

In a typical day, people speak roughly 27,000 words. Imagine what your life would be like if you struggled to speak. That’s the reality for more than 7.5 million people in the United States who have difficulties using their voice. Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices can help them to communicate with the outside world.

A team of students from Pitt Business completed a class project in fall 2014 that was aimed at raising awareness for the industry that serves people with severe speech disabilities. The students worked with a device manufacturer, Prentke Romich Company (PRC), and a device software developer, Semantic Compaction Systems.

Step one for the students was to better understand what people with speech disabilities were going through. Through their research they learned that anywhere from 50 to 70 percent of children with speech disorders develop behavioral and emotional problems. Being robbed of the ability to speak can negatively impact people’s social skills, limit their independence, and can even threaten their sense of purpose.

The students arranged a video call with Chris Klein, president of the advocacy group BecomeAAC, who was born with cerebral palsy and has used an AAC device to communicate since he was 6 years old. Klein uses his foot to type out speech commands on his device.

Next the students mapped out virtually all of the stakeholders in the market, everyone from those with disabilities who use the devices to the speech language pathologists who help with treatment to manufacturers and government regulators. The students could see there was a lack of communication between stakeholders and there was little awareness by regulators of how government regulations impact users of AAC technology. In response, the students recommended the creation of an AAC communication forum where stakeholders could come together for support in one place.

In order to create broader awareness, the students developed a marketing campaign around the theme of #TheyNeedTheirVoices. They created a prototype website and developed a logo for the campaign. Among their recommendations:

  • Establish a stronger social media presence on Facebook and Twitter and use Hootsuite to manage the multiple platforms
  • Highlight influential speakers who use the devices (people like Chris Klein, the physicist Stephen Hawking, and former NFL player Steve Gleason)
  • Partner with large-scale organizations whose members use the devices including United Cerebral Palsy, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, the ALS Association, and the Muscular Dystrophy Association, among others
  • Develop a series of targeted letters for different stakeholders that clearly explain how their support can help address regulatory issues
  • Create a video to educate people about the users of the devices and the regulatory problems

The students took things a step further by storyboarding the video that they had in mind and drafting a sample letter to send to stakeholders.

Clinical Associate Professor of Business Administration William E. Hefley managed the class project in the course Leadership in the Social Environment. The course is part of the Certificate Program in Leadership and Ethics, a 16-credit certificate open to students from all business majors that gives them hands-on, project-based experience in issues that relate to ethics and leadership, sustainability, and corporate social responsibility.