"It's easy to see why schools and parents can feel overwhelmed," reflects Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) Specialist Kristi Peak-Oliveira. Peak-Oliveira is a speech-language pathologist who has provided AAC services for almost 30 years, 20 with Easterseals. "When I began as a speech-language pathologist, there was a limited range of communication devices," she says. "Now there are so many options. And new apps are released all the time."
(Click here for tutorials and device reviews by Kristi and other Easterseals experts.)
Her career, like the Easterseals AT Department, spans nearly the development of AAC technology itself. She began at Children's Hospital where during a graduate school clinical placement, she studied with John Costello and "Just fell in love with helping children learn more ways to communicate." A self-described nerd, she says she jumped at the chance to combine her love of language with all the new and emerging technology.
These days the field of AAC is developing very quickly. There are new tools for evaluating complex communication needs, new protocols and best practices. She acknowledges sometimes feeling overwhelmed herself, "If it’s hard for me to navigate, I can’t imagine how difficult it is for parents." As program manager for Assistive Technology Services at Easterseals, Peak-Oliveira helps students obtain AAC services, navigating the IEP process with parents and schools. One of Easterseals's strengths is working with the whole system. "We collaborate with students and family members, educators, and administrators," she says. "We ensure that everyone involved is supported to be successful."
This collaboration is essential and distinguishes Easterseals's approach. Easterseals AT Specialists visit student’s onsite in their schools. "We respect the expertise and experience in the room," Peak-Oliveira emphasizes, "and we swallow our egos as necessary. Because when it's a positive experience for schools, doors begin to open. And when everyone is on board working in the same direction, there's this synergy that happens that is just really exciting."
"Recently I advocated for a woman considered 'minimally conscious' by her medical team to get an Eye Gaze communication system." It was the culmination of two years' work. "This woman's father recognized early on that eye gaze technology might be accessible for her and began exploring ways for her to communicate with her eyes. Now she's come such a long way!" The experience reinforces the importance of reserving judgment and "putting in the time," she says. "It shows why we need to start from a positive place with set expectations for what a person can do while not making assumptions about what they can't do. And how listening to parents is critical."
Here's another story that was recently done on Kristi helping a 77-year old man gain his speech back after suffering a brain injury.
"We have a great team! We put our clients and their goals first and we have a work culture that honors differences. I love the fact I get to work with people with different disabilities, sexual orientations, and ethnicities. And I love how, together, we're always learning."