AssistiveWare Chief Exec David Niemeijer Opens Up About Learning Language And Building ‘The Next Generation In AAC Technology’

Netherlands-based software development house AssistiveWare is a mainstay of the indie community building apps for Apple platforms. The shop specializes in making augmentative and alternative communication software, known as AAC, for people with no or limited verbal skills. AssistiveWare’s bread-and-butter app is the venerable Proloquo2go, which has been in active development since 2009. The app uses icons, a sort of conceptual close cousin to Apple’s SF Symbols, to facilitate a symbols-based communication system that marries pictures with text.

“It [Proloquo2go] has been extremely successful,” said AssistiveWare founder and chief executive David Niemeijer in an interview with me at the Apple Park Visitor Center at Apple’s Cupertino headquarters last week. “I think we have an average App Store rating of 4.8 [out of 5]. It’s still the most popular AAC app out there.”

Niemeijer has been attending Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference, or WWDC, for almost two decades. His first was in 2003. (I, on the other hand, have been covering WWDC up close and personal since 2014.) This year, Niemeijer was eager to tell me all about what he described as the “next generation in AAC technology”: Proloquo and Proloquo Coach. The apps are meant to be complementary of each other. Four years ago, AssistiveWare began looking into how people approach the OG Proloquo2go app in practical use; what they discovered raised eyebrows and concern. In a nutshell, they found customers—mainly parents, speech & language pathologists, and AAC specialists—were taking an extremely powerful tool and effectively turning it into a toy. What originally was designed to be intelligent became a lot dumber. The crux of the issue is most people ignore AssistiveWare’s suggested settings; the company recommends a grid of 77 buttons on a page, yet oftentimes users will reduce the size to show only 20. Niemeijer estimates over 80% of customers disregard the company’s suggestions, while another 40% opt for the considerably smaller grid of icons.

Besides kneecapping an incredibly powerful and versatile piece of software, the penchant for making Proloquo2go dumber ultimately hinders the person who needs communicative help. Parents or service providers think they’re doing well by their child or client when, in actuality, they’re doing a gross disservice.

“By doing that [making Proloquo2go dumber], they make access to language a lot harder for the children, students. And for a couple of years, we’ve been trying to educate people, we create a whole section on our website to learn about AAC, with all kinds of articles about best practice,” Niemeijer said. “But we were continuing to see that the app wasn’t used as intended. So then, about three years ago, we said, ‘Okay, well, there’s only one way to address this: we need to start again from scratch and build something new’ that is really designed for parents, for teachers, and all those people who have to help someone who cannot speak—but don’t have the knowledge to make all the right decisions on how to configure it.”

Given the problems Niemeijer mentioned, it’s easiest to think of the new Proloquo as the AAC app for the masses. It’s plenty powerful, but purposefully less so than its older and beefier brother in an effort to make it more approachable and streamlined. For professionals or absolutists who love to tinker, the original Proloquo2go app will continue to exist for maximum configurability. Moreover, the Proloquo Coach app exists to educate users on how and why to build enriching AAC experiences. It has how-tos and articles on navigating app, as well as tips and tricks with best practices for providing quality AAC support for people.

Put another way, Niemeijer likened Proloquo to the iPhone: Powerful yet simple for everyone and impossible to screw up irreparably. By contrast, Proloquo2go is Android in this analogy: Whereas Apple’s philosophy is more conservative in nature, Google in comparison gives users much more free rein in terms of extensibility and modifying the operating system. The classic Exhibit A is the oft-cited cry from the nerd crowd that Apple limits the installation of third-party software to the App Store, but Android customers can sideload apps in addition to using the Play Store. For AssistiveWare’s part, Niemeijer and team feels the majority of folks are better off sticking to Proloquo unless, again, they have an insatiable desire—and the know-how—to customize and micromanage.

The bottom line? Trust Niemeijer and team to guide you in the right direction.

“In a way, all AAC apps, including our own, they’re designed by experts,” he said. “And if you’re an expert in the field, you can configure it the right way for this particular child or this adult. But most people don’t have that background. They don’t know what to do, they have not had the training in their university courses.”

A common thread running through my conversation with Niemeijer was the underlying problem with reducing Proloquo2go’s functionality: doing so presumes incompetence. He explained that by limiting word choice to just a few options, the parent or caretaker is artificially capping a person’s ability to expand their vocabulary. Cognitively speaking, Niemeijer told me, many people using AAC devices actually have a lot to say if given the opportunity. They just need a tool to enable expression, which is why AssistiveWare’s findings were so alarming. The essential lesson is people’s automatic presumption that disabled people, of all ilks, are somehow less than human—that they’re inferior in doing things like holding a coherent conversation. That ableist mindset, Niemeijer said, hearkens back to an era where people with disabilities were pushed aside, cast away to institutions because the prevailing wisdom was having a disability meant they were worthless to society and as an individual. Service providers working in educational or clinical settings should be realistic in their evaluations of the disabled people they serve, but so too should they err on the side of capableness. Whether it be writing IEP goals and objectives or setting up Proloquo, always assume the best over the worst.

However awful the pandemic has been over the last two-plus years, our collective isolation worked to AssistiveWare’s advantage in terms of how they rethought and rebuilt Proloquo. The focus was “totally on building something new,” according to Niemeijer. The new apps were released in Australia last October before coming to the United States in March. The app’s design was inspired by AssistiveWare getting feedback from its customers, and noticing that everyone’s copy of Proloquo2go has been tweaked to the nth degree—to the point where its usefulness was compromised. Something had to give. “We said, ‘Okay, we’re not going to allow it’,” Niemeijer said. “We also said, ‘Let’s go for a single grid size that is smaller than we usually recommend, but let’s design it so [it can be] at least as efficient as what we used to recommend. We spent a lot of time on optimizing that. In the end, we built an app that is much more modern, looks much less overwhelming, [and] better supports the [curricular] demands from schools.”

Much of the feedback AssistiveWare garners on the Proloquo apps is around potential and how people use the software. As Niemejier explained, they typically hear two factions battling each other—effectively having a civil war over the best educational interest of their child or student. “We often see this fight between parents and [the] school where either one of the parties doesn’t believe in potential, and the other does,” he said. “And so then you get these parents who have fights with [them] because words have been removed [from the app] and, of course, the system has been dumbed down. Sometimes it’s the other way around: where the school [speech & language pathologist] or teacher, they know that you need to expose someone to a lot of language, and that you shouldn’t dumb things down. But the parents think that this is not possible.” Additionally, there are people who want AssistiveWare to be more laissez-faire with how they allow customizability within Proloquo—there are even parents who report never knowing about AAC because their child’s IEP team never brought it up.

Economically speaking, Proloquo2go retains its professional-conscious $250 price tag. As for Proloquo and Proloquo Coach, AssistiveWare has adopted the ever-popular subscription model where people can either pay $10 per month or $100 per year. Parents not only can install the app(s) on their own devices, they can grant access to family members and/or service providers. The Coach app comes included. With the suite—Proloquo2go, Proloquo, and Proloquo Coach—Niemeijer said AssistiveWare has essentially created a service that offers “good language and communication development,” he said. And apropos of a developer conference, Proloquo and Proloquo Coach were built using Apple’s Swift and SwiftUI.

In the end, that’s AssistiveWare’s raison d’être—to make communication better.

“We’re a company with a social mission. And that means ultimately, we want communication success for the AAC user,” Niemeijer said. “The reason we started to create these new products is we were not seeing the level of success that we think people should have, in terms of vocabulary expansion, amount of communication, [and] language development. What we hope to see with these new products, and the new supports we’ve put into place, that we’ll see stronger growth [and] bigger vocabulary development. Ultimately, that’s what we care most about.”