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Talking Buttons helps kids vocalize needs

By Antoinette Mercurio

Rubina Quadri

Early childhood studies master's student Rubina Quadri is using a $27,000 Ryerson Social Enterprise Fellowship Federal Development Grant to develop a communication device for autistic children.

Rubina Quadri is helping children learn the art of communication.

The Early Childhood Studies (ECS) ’12 graduate received a $27,000 Ryerson Social Enterprise Fellowship Federal Development Grant to develop a prototype of Talking Buttons, a reprogrammable touchpad to help autistic children communicate. Like fellow ECS graduate Sherene Ng, Quadri’s internship and work as a lab technician and research assistant in the EDGE Lab got her acquainted with adaptive design. Quadri started to learn about Alternative and Augmentative Communication (AAC) devices and how to enhance its capabilities. AAC are communication methods to help support or replace speech and writing for those with impairments.

“There are many products on the market, including ones that are wearable. We were working on something like that in the EDGE Lab,” Quadri said. “The idea I submitted was designed with a specific market in mind. I had done some work with autistic children using iPads and thought to create something that would facilitate quick communication. Something as simple as going to the washroom can be misunderstood.”

Talking Buttons is a wearable, customizable AAC device for children ages four to six who have speech disabilities (difficulty speaking or being understood). It helps them to communicate to others using language in an independent way. Quadri says children’s need to communicate with people outside their family increases dramatically when they begin childcare or school. “Talking Buttons can facilitate self-expression and help to diminish misunderstandings,” she said.

The talking buttons can be discreetly and fashionably integrated anywhere on a garment and have audio outputs. When a user selects and pushes a button, a pre-recorded sound clip of single or multiple words (up to 20 seconds) is played. Any voice or language can be used, such as the voice of parent or a favourite character. It is rechargeable and the entire electrical unit is small enough to be housed in a ribbon-like cloth enclosure that can be fastened onto clothing.

It was after a year in the EDGE Lab that Quadri decided to commercialize a product. The $27,000 grant will help Quadri develop a prototype and complete early-stage testing of the touchpad at daycares, including some market research.

 “Walking into the EDGE Lab, I felt in over my head because of my lack of technical knowledge,” Quadri said. “But Jason [Nolan, ECS professor and EDGE Lab director] has really created a space for collaboration and exploration. Learning adaptive design helped me think about nontraditional ways of learning.”

Quadri is currently pursuing her master of arts in early childhood studies at the Yeates School of Graduate Studies while continuing to work out of the EDGE Lab on the touchpad. She says she’s interested in solid research and having that informs product development. While ECS provided Quadri with the theoretical background to create a useful device for children with speech disabilities, it’s her day-to-day life in a new startup where she’s learning how to be an entrepreneur.

“I’m learning to be explicit about what I want for myself and for others and to be surrounded by people who share the same expectations,” she said. “Talking Buttons is a product that can facilitate communication that’s easy to use. I want to make it natural and spontaneous so the needs of users are met.”

Quadri is another social innovator who is applying her research interests and education to create something beneficial for the community around her. Ryerson is Canada’s first Ashoka Changemaker campus, part of an international network of universities and colleges that are committed to solving real-world problems in new and creative ways.