=46inding purpose through the iPhone
By Michael Morton/Daily News staff MetroWest Daily News Posted Sep 19, 2009 @ 12:06 AM
After struggling with personal issues and leaving college midway through, Samuel Sennott turned to volunteerism in his hometown and discovered the Michael Carter Lisnow Respite Center.
A dozen years later, the former Hopkinton High School football captain credits that fateful moment with giving his life purpose and providing inspiration for an Apple iPhone application aiding communication for people with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and other conditions.
"It really changed my life," Sennott said this week.
Upon graduating from Hopkinton High in 1996, Sennott enrolled at Gordon College in Wenham, but left after his freshman year for reasons he declined to elaborate on, calling it a challenging time.
"I was searching for something meaningful in my life," he said.
With an assist from his church, Sennott landed at the respite center, working at its crafts table and getting his first exposure to children with mental and physical disabilities.
"He just found his niche," said Sharon Lisnow, who co-founded the center in memory of her son. "He just has an unbelievable knack with people with disabilities."
Eventually, Sennott's volunteer post turned to a job, one that he continued when he took classes at MassBay Community College and =46ramingham State College.
"It's just a place filled with love and true compassion," he said. "That experience really changed my heart and my mind."
Returning to Gordon, Sennott earned an elementary special education degree and embarked on a series of jobs working with children with disabilities. Since many could not communicate with their own voices, he sought answers, entering a technology-related program at Simmons College and turning over possible solutions in his mind.
"I think all the time about how I can do this better or how I can serve more," he said.
Upon the iPhone's debut, Sennott immediately saw similarities to existing communication aids and realized the new product's potential. Working with a coder met over the Internet, he disabled the device's proprietary protection and designed an application for those with speech barriers.
When he showed it to companies already in the market, however, some told him that families would not buy an unsanctioned device, while others did not understand why an iPhone would be more desirable than existing, rugged, hand-held devices with touch screens.
Knowing they had missed the iPhone's "cool" appeal, Sennott approached a smaller firm, developing the software anew and waiting until Apple finally opened an online store for outside applications. It took a month, but the computer giant eventually approved the new application for its iPhone and iPod Touch.
Named Proloquo2Go proloquo means "speak out loud" in Latin the application debuted in April for $189.99, with the first major update released this week.
The program takes on-screen text and reads it electronically, either through Apple's built-in sound system or add-on speakers. Clicking on stick-figure icons, users can type in messages or tap into programmed shortcuts.
Clicking on "Hi, Bye" gives several greeting options, for example, while "I want" can then get filled in by choosing a category like drinks followed by a specific beverage listing.
"I think it's been a great add-on tool," said Jessica Gosnell, a speech language pathologist at the Center for Communication Enhancement, part of the Waltham campus of Children's Hospital Boston. "This device has a cool factor that a lot of parents and patients like."
Since iPhones and iPods have additional uses, however, the application is not typically covered by insurance, unlike competitors' specialized and more expensive devices.
Still, sales have been brisk, said Sennott, who is now pursuing a Ph.D in special education and alternative and augmented communication at Penn State University. He attributes that achievement to his experiences at the Hopkinton respite center.
"I just owe them a lot," he said.
(Michael Morton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 508-626-4338.)
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