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Giving a 'voice': CoughDrop app provides assistance to those with communication needs

SOUTH JORDAN — Brian Whitmer is not a speech pathologist, an audiologist, an occupational therapist or a counselor. So those in attendance at the Utah Speech-language Hearing Association’s 2016 conference last month may have initially wondered why he, an entrepreneur without training in speech-language hearing, was the keynote speaker.

But Whitmer’s passion is close to home. His daughter, Becca, has Rett syndrome, a postnatal neurological disorder that has caused her to be nonverbal and to use a wheelchair.

At the conference, Whitmer challenged hundreds of specialists to shed their assumptions regarding those with special needs.

“Those with special needs have traditionally been put in a bucket — we should make them happy, we should make them comfortable, and we should love them, and that’s about it,” said Whitmer, a South Jordan resident, in his keynote address.

“But there’s so much potential for them to have a much more meaningful life than that," he explained further in an interview with the Deseret News. "We have to be very careful that we’re not limiting the potential of these individuals just because they’re in a wheelchair or because their faces don’t look the way we think they should look. We have the opportunity to include people that would otherwise live a very limited and isolated life.”

Whitmer has done just that through his creation of CoughDrop, a cloud-based program for Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC).

“When you’ve been talking too long and your voice gets hoarse, you throw a cough drop in your mouth so people can hear your voice better,” Whitmer explained. “AAC is a cough drop for people with communication needs — the voice was always there, but we’re trying to help it be heard.”

As a father to a daughter with communication needs, Whitmer researched available AAC programs and found that many of the available features were lacking. While designing CoughDrop, he reached out through Twitter to dozens of experts throughout the nation for feedback and advice.

“It was nice that I don’t have that expertise … because it forced me to go out and make sure that (the program) generalizes across lots of different experts, whereas a therapist might say, ‘I know what I want, I just need someone to build it for me,’” Whitmer said.

AAC keyboards assign symbols to commonly used words, which Whitmer said can be particularly beneficial for those with autism, cerebral palsy, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Rett syndrome and a host of other circumstances that can impair speaking ability, such as strokes.

“The device that (Becca) had, the only way we knew how much she used it at school was by checking the battery when she got home, which is depressing,” Whitmer said. “When you’re augmenting communication like that, it’s really important to know what’s going on. I wanted better visibility.”

Unlike other AAC programs, CoughDrop creates reports that track usage and vocabulary, Whitmer said. It also uses cloud-based storage so it is accessible from any computer or tablet, allowing “therapists, specialists, parents and other team members (to) modify the communication set and even log session notes and messages in a place where everyone can benefit from them,″ according to the app’s website.

“If you’re creating a list of all of the words this person would use, it’s going to be personalized,″ Whitmer said. “As you build that, it becomes specific to that person, and it changes over time. So every single (vocabulary) is different. If you stick that on a device, the device breaks or the battery dies and you’ve lost it.

“But with CoughDrop, since it’s cloud-based, that vocabulary is available for everybody on the team to see. They can learn where the buttons are, they can make changes remotely, and they don’t have to take the device away to do that, which is what you would have done in the past. You would have had to say, ‘I need to add some buttons, so give me your device, don’t talk all night long, and I’ll give you your voice back tomorrow when I see you.’”

CoughDrop is available for Apple and Android products as well as on any computer. Visit for additional information.