Our Story

Passion for empowering the voices of Symbol Speakers

Deann O’Lenick, PHD, CCC/SLP, MBA

Meet Deann - Over 32 years of experience in Speech Language Pathology

As with most journeys, the path to Symbol-It was not a direct line. In hindsight, I can trace the beginnings back to my introduction to argumentative and alternative communication (AAC) when I was a sophomore at North Dakota State University. I was immediately fascinated by the opportunity to give someone who was not able to produce speech on their own a way to be able to express their thoughts, ideas, feelings, likes, and dislikes. While completing on my masters at Texas Tech University and speech language pathology, I worked in the neonatal and pediatric intensive care units at an area hospital, and the development of language from first responses to the environment and to human interaction provided a view of the foundation of language. as I completed my PhD in early child development and education, my fascination for and my love of language development through augmentative communication took a new direction. It was at that point that I understood that the terminology for AAC misrepresented the point. Language is the reason we augment. Language is what we are developing. Languages the goal. I don’t mean to say that others did not have that viewpoint, but in our conversations, the device or the augmentative communication system took priority over in language. And by doing so, I felt like we had lost the Focus on the priority of language.

In an effort to do things differently, I wanted to return to how language develops. Language develops at home, with family and friends and extended family. Language also develops in the classroom, with teachers, educational assistance, and peers. In focusing on language development and where language development occurs, I started a nonprofit called Hear MY Voice- Language Through AAC. The intent of this nonprofit is to provide education and training for parents, extended family, caregivers, educators, educational assistance, and therapists on how language develops for verbal language, as well as for sign language and second languages, introducing the theory of a Dual-Symbol Immersion. Dual-Symbol Immersion is the process of speaking to a person in two symbol systems simultaneously, specifically verbally and in picture symbols.

Immersion means imbedded in or submerged in. It means that one is completely surrounded by the symbol systems they are learning, throughout each day, in each environment, and for all topics. Verbal language is developed this way. Sign language for people with hearing impairments is developed this way. When considering that immersion is necessary, including Dual-Symbol Immersion, then the next question for me was regarding the additional tools that would be needed in order to immerse the individual in the symbol system being developed. The options to speak to the person in his/her symbol system included the use of low tech augmentative communication boards, the individuals personal augmentative communication system or speech generating device. But I was faced with times that I either did not have access to any of these systems or I did not have the time to be able to create a message on those systems. The question for me was if there was a way to make language visible in real time. And out of this desire, Symbol-It was developed.

As I searched for someone who could make that happen, I asked people I knew and Matt if they knew of a computer programmer who would be able to assist in developing an app. I asked Meghan Salley, a former student of mine from Texas Christian University, and she said yes and introduced me to Will Taylor. Within three weeks, Will and I had developed a vision for Symbol-It. From there the app was forged with the mission and vision to support the development of language when that language is through and is made from a communication system. Will parted ways with SymbolSpeak in December of 2020, but our vision continued in seeking to provide interested parties with a way to be able to immerse the symbol speaker in his or her symbol system, in real time, and in all contexts. It was important that Symbol-It be easy to use, easy enough for a young sibling to be able to immerse their brother or sister in their symbol system. While Symbol-It does not replace the need to speak to the developing symbol speaker on his/her own system, so they see the location and organization, it provides symbols in concert with verbal speech, so that the symbol speaker can both hear and see language in real time.

It is my hope and dream for each symbol speaker to have the language input, in an accessible symbol system, so that he/she will develop their own language to the fullest extent possible. It is my hope and dream that each symbol speaker will be able to express their unique thoughts, ideas, feelings, and desires in a way that they can be heard and understood.

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