Four-year-old Maya Nieder is an adorable little girl who can smile, walk, hug her dog, and play with her toys. But she cannot speak.
According to her mother’s blog, Uncommon Sense, Maya has a yet-undiagnosed condition that causes global developmental delays. At four years old, Maya still can speak only a few words.
Her parents have tried several different methods of communication, including sign language, picture cards, communication boards, and iPad apps such as Proloquo2Go.
All were met with variable success.
Then came an iPad app called Speak for Yourself (SfY), created by speech pathologists Heidi LoStracco and Renee Collender. The app includes core vocabulary words as well as the ability to add custom words. This app was a perfect match for Maya, and allowed her to communicate with the world around her.
It gave her a voice, and it gave her family the gift of getting to know their daughter. As Maya’s mom Dana says on her blog:
Maya can speak to us, clearly, for the first time in her life. We are hanging on her every word. We’ve learned that she loves talking about the days of the week, is weirdly interested in the weather, and likes to pretend that her toy princesses are driving the bus to school (sometimes) and to work (other times). This app has not only allowed her to communicate her needs, but her thoughts as well.
Unfortunately, SfY has been involved in a legal battle with Prentke Romich Company (PRC) and Semantic Compaction Systems (SCS), which produce augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices. PRC/SCS claim that LoStracco and Collender infringed upon patented technology in an app that directly competes with their AAC devices. The creators of Speak for Yourself are defending themselves, calling the lawsuit baseless.
Months ago, PRC/SCS asked Apple to remove SfY due to the alleged patent infringement. For a while, nothing happened, but on June 4, Apple pulled the app from the App Store.
Maya still has a functional copy of the app on her iPad, but with the removal of the app from the App Store, there is no way for SfY to be updated. Maya’s parents live in fear that the app will stop working with one of Apple’s system updates, or worse, that the app could be removed from their device remotely. This would take away Maya’s primary mode of communication with her parents and those around her.
Patent wars are incredibly common nowadays, especially in the tech world. Last year, PCWorld wrote an article about recent lawsuits and how everybody loses in this type of quick fire patent litigation as giant corporations sue small app developers in an attempt to secure more market share. PCWorld points out that the high costs of litigation are passed down to consumers and may even be stifling innovation.
However, the negative effects of patent lawsuits are even more devastating for people who rely on threatened apps for everyday living—in this case, children with disabilities like Maya, and their families. Communication apps are widely used by children with special needs, especially those with autism or speech disorders. Apps in general have proven to be terrific learning tools as well as communication devices for children with special needs, so it’s scary to think that such valuable apps could swiftly disappear from the App Store in the midst of a legal scuffle.
Apps are relatively cheap, accessible, and intuitive to use. In fact, the SfY app cost only $299.99, while AAC devices can cost several thousand dollars. AAC systems are also bulkier than the slim iPad tablet, making an app the more convenient and economical choice. From a business standpoint, it’s no wonder that PRC/SCS wants to protect their share of the market and the intellectual property that they claim to be theirs.
Whether PRC/SCS are technically right is up to the legal system, but regardless of the technicality, if major companies stomp out small app developers like SfY, many disabled children like Maya could be left without important learning tools and apps that assist them in everyday life.
Additional sources: Time