“When I go through the schedule every morning, there’s cheering for every single activity throughout the day, which is really fun,” said Mary-Alex Willer.
Willer is the executive director of the Open Access Resource Centre (OARC), a nonprofit that works with children with speech challenges. She and her staff host Camp yAAC, a camp for kids who use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC).
“We have a few campers who have come back year after year, and their families share with us that they talk about it all year long,” said Willer.
Many of the campers use iPads with a specialized language application to communicate. Words and accompanying symbols are laid out in a grid, which users can search through to build sentences. Each child’s app can be personalized; users can select words the machine will read out loud, and the app can be programmed with custom sentences.
“Some have some pre-recorded phrases, so they can participate in a conversation a little bit more quickly, because we all talk so quickly,” Willer said.
Support staff and volunteers who work with the campers all use the iPads — nicknamed “Talkers” — to communicate during camp. When activities don’t allow them to use technology, they bring a card printed with commonly used words, called “Light Tech.”
“We just point to them while we’re talking to call attention to the symbols and the words that are here, because this is the language that they are using when they are communicating with us as well,” Willer said.
Most of the kids use some form of communication device in their day-to-day lives at home or at school. For some campers, Camp yAAC is the first time they’ve been in an environment where everyone is using the same form of communication as they are.
“Sometimes people think it’s about sitting at a table and learning how to talk,” said Samantha Walters, a speech-language pathologist with OARC, “but it’s actually just about being together all day long and having fun experiences together, and that’s what this camp provides.”
AAC learning is built into each activity. Storytime is led by a Fran Loewen, a camp helper who uses a Talker as her primary form of communication. Campers tell staff which activities they enjoyed, and which ones the didn’t.
“I like swimming!” camper Ben Lisowski types into his Talker.
Willer asks what returning camper Marianne Blandigneres’s favourite part of camp is so far. Blandigneres answers right away:
On top of coming home with an expanded vocabulary, Camp yAAC offers kids the chance to socialize and interact with other kids like them. Many leave with new friends, and look forward to returning the following summer.
“It really is just a fun summer camp for kids,” Walters said. “I think we can’t underestimate the value in having kids and all their adult communication partners see the power of the Talkers in the everyday.”