An interview with Dougal
This year Smartbox celebrates its 15th anniversary. To mark this occasion our Managing Director Dougal is looking back on the milestones in our history and ahead to the future of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC).
How was Smartbox born?
Smartbox was formed as a family business in 2006 – consisting of me, my brother Barney and our parents operating out of the basement of our family home.
The story of how and why Smartbox was created begins way back in the 1970s when my dad Paul began work for a charity called the Foundation for Communication for the Disabled (FCD). I have many childhood memories of my dad in his workshop creating bespoke solutions to help disabled people access technology.
As time went by he was increasingly focused on the need to help people without speech to communicate and in 2000 he left the Charity to set up Sensory Software – which was when our Grid software was also first released.
Grid enabled people to use any Windows tablet or laptop as a symbol or text-based communication device. Smartbox was spun out of Sensory Software when we launched Grid 2 and initially focused on providing complete AAC devices in the UK.
What are your proudest milestones?
As much as I have enjoyed the process of growing Smartbox as a business the real stand out moments for me are when we hear back from AAC users or those that support them about how our products and service have made an impact on their life.
One such moment happened many years ago, after I had been to visit a 40-year-old dad who had been diagnosed with ALS. He had lost so much independence and this was having a huge impact on his mental health. After setting him up with a copy of Grid and a head tracker for his laptop he emailed me to say what it meant to him that he had just ordered his son’s Christmas present from Amazon.
Another example of feedback that really stuck with me was when a highly experienced and well respected Occupational Therapist described Grid 3 as a masterpiece on a Facebook post. It was the highest praise and meant so much to the team as we put so much energy and emotion into developing our software.
We are now looking forward to a very exciting future for Smartbox and announcing we have joined the CareTech group of companies was a clear watershed moment. It has given us the platform to grow the company further as well as working with Purple on accessibility and the CareTech Foundation on projects to bring AAC to different parts of the world. Smartbox is now very much a global company and we have resellers in over 40 countries around the world.
What makes Grid Grid?
Grid started out as a platform for people to develop different symbol and text-based resources for AAC. Now we provide Grid with a huge amount of ready-made content for communication, social media and much more. Grid continues to be highly customisable to suit the needs of each AAC user and remains a key feature of Grid, as well as the option to access any grid with any type of alternative access such as touch, eye gaze or switches.
Grid has always been about combining alternative communication with the opportunity to interact with the world around you, and it was in 2006 that we first integrated features such as SMS, email and web browsing. For the first time, we were enabling people that could not use standard keyboard and mouse the opportunity to use these new web-based technologies. Prior to that AAC software was typically focused on face to face communication and didn’t provide tools for the user to do more with their device, beyond an on-screen keyboard.
Fast forward to 2021 and we now live in a world where are constantly connected through our smartphones and social media. Yet there continues to be a digital divide that excludes many disabled people from using the technology that the rest of us rely on. We continue to develop Grid to bridge that divide through our Accessible Apps that now include Facebook, Spotify, YouTube and many more.
Our challenge now is to create relationships and work more closely with the developers of mainstream apps such as Facebook, Twitter, and Spotify as we need these platforms to be built in a more accessible way. It is both our privilege and our responsibility to develop and support these tools in a way that is true to our roots – not just creating the technology but doing whatever is necessary to help people succeed in using it.
What does the future of AAC look like to Smartbox?
Despite having come so far from our humble roots, we know there is still so much more we can achieve to help people around the world to communicate. We are working closely with our partners around the world to improve the symbolised language systems we offer in different languages. Technology continues to change rapidly and we have an important role in identifying the developments that can benefit AAC users and integrate them with Grid.
We want to enable AAC users to have more natural conversations through faster communication and tools like our new second screen technology. Artificial voice technology is another area that is developing rapidly and we want to help people find a voice that represents who they are in terms of their age as well as where in the world they are from.
We have some huge challenges ahead of us, but we are blessed with the most dedicated and talented team. Our shared goals and values mean we are well placed to continue our journey and give more disabled people a voice.
If you’d like to find out more about Grid AAC software, alternative access for complex communication needs and our range of AAC devices, you can get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org. We offer a range of free visits and services to help you succeed on your journey with AAC.
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