Free speech

Barry Romich describes the company he built with Ed Prentke as a ’60s spinoff of a medical engineering research project he worked on while attending what was then known as the Case Institute of Technology.

The young electronics engineering student met Prentke, an engineer on staff at Highland View Hospital in Warrensville Heights, while both were devising methods of controlling powered upper-extremity orthotic systems — methods that would allow, for example, a person paralyzed from the neck down to control a mechanism to move his or her arms.

“While the research project was looking decades into the future, the patients who were there in the hospital and were the subjects of the research had very real needs right then,” Romich remembers. “The technology did exist to do some things for them. We started to build some things for people on the side.”

The devices were simple at first — nurse “call” switches that could be activated by blowing into a tube or rolling the head, for example. But Prentke and Romich soon graduated to environmental control systems that allowed patients to turn on the lights or a radio, or even dial a phone.

“Once they had that first taste of control, they started to ask for more things,” Romich says.

By the mid-’70s, the duo’s sideline had become a full-time business, Prentke Romich Co. Prentke retired from the company in the late ’70s to concentrate on his position at the hospital — a job he held until he was almost 88. Romich, a Creston native who had tired of city life, moved the company to Wooster and became its chairman and CEO.

Over the years it has grown into a global pioneer among the relative handful of companies that specialize in augmentative and alternative communication. The electronic devices produced by Prentke Romich, which employs about 100, allow those unable to speak due to a physical or cognitive disability to communicate effectively and independently.

“The founding of Prentke Romich essentially predates the field,” says President Dave Moffatt. “Most people would say the real field of AAC (augmentative and alternative communication) in terms of people being able to communicate with any of these electronic devices is about 20 or 25 years old. Barry and Ed Prentke were in business doing some of these kinds of things before there really was a field.”

The company’s products are used by everyone from children with cerebral palsy — a term used to describe a variety of chronic conditions in which brain damage, usually incurred at birth, impairs motor function and control — to adults stricken by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis,commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a progressive malady that causes paralysis via degeneration of the spinal cord.

Even older adults recovering from strokes use augmentative and assisted communication, if only while working to regain their ability to talk.

Although some businesses manufacture simple devices geared toward people with severe cognitive disabilities, Prentke Romich’s high-tech aids are designed for individuals who, as Moffatt puts it, “are able to acquire and use language in some reasonable, normal way.”

Indeed, the most advanced product pictured in the latest catalog resembles a laptop computer more than anything else. Prentke Romich’s communication aids utilize a language system called Minspeak, exclusively licensed to it by Semantic Compaction Systems of Pittsburgh, in which the sequencing of icons determines their meaning.

Hitting the “rainbow” icon followed by the “frog” icon, for example, yields the word “green.”

The advantage to such a system, Moffatt says, is that it keeps the number of icons on the keyboard of any device relatively small. Many users eventually become “touch typists,” although not at the rate those with normal motor functions enjoy. In addition to a color display screen, the ingenious devices “speak” in age- and gender-appropriate voice options.

According to Moffatt, these aids offer advantages such as longer battery life and better durability over the traditional laptop, a valid communication option for some individuals. He adds that most of Prentke Romich’s products allow users to access a computer through a cable or infrared connection.

“When you unplug my laptop from the power source, it works for about two or three hours reliably,” he says. “Someone who depends on a device to talk really needs that device to work for them all day.”

The Prentke Romich Co. ships its devices all over the world. An international network of distributors in more than 20 countries, including some in Africa and the Far East, is managed out of a London office. Sales and service for the United States and Canada are handled by the Wooster headquarters.

The company advertises in Exceptional Parent, a magazine for caregivers of physically and mentally challenged children, and participates at events such as the Abilities Expo last month at the I-X Center in Cleveland. But both Romich and Moffatt say their most effective sales tool is professionals who evaluate and support their clients.

“Because the actual end-user world is so diverse and so wide-flung, what we typically do is educate those people — for example, those speech pathologists who work in AAC — to make sure they understand what our devices will do, how they can be accessed and the kinds of people who benefit from having our devices as opposed to another approach,” Moffatt says.

The task, Romich says, is a big one.

“People who need this kind of stuff are relatively few and far between,” Romich says. “Consequently, the people who serve them often do not have much of a vision of what’s possible, and they haven’t had very much experience. Even in those centers that have had a lot of experience, they, in general, haven’t taken a very scientific approach to service delivery.”

To that end, the company has established a nonprofit organization, the AAC Institute, to provide information and services for end-users and professionals. The group is developing a Web site featuring language samples collected from AAC users, a tool Romich says will clearly illustrate what can be achieved in the AAC field to anyone with access to a computer.

Romich says technology is bringing exciting changes to the field of augmentative and alternative communication. He talks of a computer mouse that could be operated by simply moving a knee or raising a shoulder — an alternative for those who can’t use the mouth-operated joysticks and headpointing systems already available.

Moffatt says it is the people making such options available that set Prentke Romich apart from other businesses.

“On the average day, just interacting with the employees makes it a very rewarding place to work,” he says. “And when you get a chance to go out and talk to parents, watch people who use our products, see people succeeding in school, working on their own, it’s pretty exciting.”

How to reach: Prentke Romich Co., (800) 262-1984

Lynne Thompson is a free-lance writer and regular contributor to SBN Magazine.