Recently I had the pleasure of meeting Logan Prickett, a second year student at Auburn University at Montgomery. Logan is an academically gifted STEM student and the inspiration behind The Logan Project at AUM, an initiative to develop software that will enable students who are blind or who have low vision to fully participate in all college-level math courses.
At age 13, Logan suffered an anaphylactic reaction to the contrast dye in an MRI. His heart stopped beating on its own which left him without oxygen for 45 minutes. Logan believes that “a prayer chain that reached around the world was active during those 45 minutes and I credit God and those prayers for the heartbeat that brought me back to life.”
His time without oxygen left Logan blind, a wheelchair user, with fine motor control difficulties, and unable to speak above a whisper due to damage to his vocal cords that occurred during life saving measures. Logan has the cognitive ability to do the work in his courses, he just needs a few technology supports in place to ensure his vision and motor challenges do not get in the way and prevent him from tapping his full potential. The goal of the Logan Project is thus to eliminate barriers for students with complex needs like Logan so that they can not only complete required math coursework but pursue a career in a STEM field if they desire. This is worthy goal given the underrepresentation of people with disabilities in STEM fields. You can learn more about it by typing The Logan Project into the search bar on the AUM website (aum.edu).
The Goal: Independent Communication
When I met with Logan and his team the expressed goal was to get Logan started on the journey to independent communication, beginning with the ability to send and receive short messages with his family and those close to him. Logan had just acquired an iPhone 6 Plus and we considered the use of Switch Control since Logan has enough motor control to press a switch. To accommodate his visual impairment, we decided that Logan would use Switch Control with manual scanning and the speech support turned on. This way he would be able to hear the items on the screen as he presses the switches to scan through them at a pace that works for him. The one problem with this setup is the possibility of fatigue from repeated switch presses. Siri seemed like a possibility for getting around this issue, but unfortunately Siri is not able to recognize Logan’s low whisper to allow him to quickly send a text message or initiate a FaceTime call. Surprisingly, FaceTime can pick up Logan’s whisper well so that it can be understood on the other end of the call. Although he can be heard with an actual phone call as well, the audio with a FaceTime call is much better. Thus, if we could find a way to activate FaceTime with a minimum of effort we would go a long way toward giving Logan an option for communication while he develops his Switch Control skills. That’s where the Workflow app comes in.
Workflow to the Rescue
I knew about the Workflow app because it made history as the first app to get an Apple design award for its attention to accessibility. In fact, at the Design Awards, members of Apple’s engineering team who are blind were the ones who actually did the demo of the app to show how well it works with the VoiceOver screen reader built into Apple’s mobile devices. You can watch the demo on Apple’s WWDC 2015 site (the Workflow demo starts at 35 minutes and goes through the 42 minute mark.)
As the name suggests, Workflow is a utility for creating workflows that allow the user to chain together a series of actions to complete a given task. For example, as I often do tutorials with screenshots from my Apple Watch, I have created a workflow that automatically takes the latest Apple Watch screenshot saved to my Camera Roll on the iPhone and shares it to my computer using Airdrop so that I can quickly add it to a blog post or a presentation. This kind of workflow can save a lot of time and effort for tasks that you perform several times over the course of a day.
Workflow already includes many actions for built-in iOS apps such as Contacts, FaceTime and Messages. These actions can be chained together to create a workflow, with the output from one action used as the input for the next one in the chain. Thus, a workflow can consist of selecting an entry in the Contacts app and feeding its information into the FaceTime app to start a new call with the selected contact. In much the same way, the entry from the Contacts app can be combined with a Text action to start Messages, pre-fill the message body and automatically address the message. For Logan this kind of workflow would reduce the amount of work he would have to perform and allow him to send quick messages to his team, such as “I’m ready for pick up” or “class is running late.” There is even the possibility of sharing his location so that other team members can get an idea of where Logan is at different points in the day.
Once a workflow has been created it is possible to add it as a shortcut on the Home Screen, with its own descriptive name, icon and color. By organizing these shortcuts on the Home Screen it is possible to create a simple communication system for Logan, giving him the ability to use Switch Control to independently start FaceTime calls, send quick messages and more.
The ultimate goal is to develop Logan’s ability to communicate independently and this will require building up his skills as a new switch user. With time and practice, I have no doubt after getting to know Logan that he will become a proficient user of Switch Control. In the meantime, Workflow is a good option for building his confidence and giving him some good reasons to use those skills: communicating with those who are important to him with a minimum of effort. When he is ready, he could then add an alternative and augmentative communication (AAC) app such as Proloquo4Text to his arsenal of communication tools, as well as keyboards such as Keeble and Phraseboard that make it easier for switch user to enter text. Logan has demonstrated that he has the ability to do well in higher education; now we just have to figure out how to eliminate a few barriers that are standing in his way and preventing him from letting his ability shine.