After a pretty busy week of work I took some time to myself today to enjoy a five mile run before the snow hits this afternoon. Running is one of the few things I do for myself, and is always a time where I can let go of all the craziness in my head! I usually get lost in the music, focus on the sound of my feet hitting the pavement, and the burn of my muscles and lungs as I push myself a little faster or further. Today, I found myself reflecting on my journey this year, and I’m pretty sure that if you drove past me there was a smile on my face as I got lost in these thoughts...
This morning I purchased my airline tickets, booked my hotel, and a couple days ago also registered for the ATIA conference, which is a national organization for the field of Assistive Technology. An amazing colleague/mentor, Kelly Fonner, invited me to be on a panel of AT experts who provide services in the school. As exciting as this is, there’s a huge financial commitment to attending a well known conference like this, even if you’re a speaker. It was an incredible feeling to use my “business credit card” to book these things this week, and all of this is what lead me to reflecting on this past year.
Over the years I’ve contemplated starting a private practice many times. I’ve purchased books, done research, but because the niche was being filled in my community, ultimately, I always decided against it. This spring all of that changed in the blink of an eye. As soon as I heard that a local clinic closed its AT program I began researching the feasibility of opening my practice. Although there were a few university run clinics in the state of Wisconsin, there was only one clinic that specialized in augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). The thought of individuals being on a waiting list for over a year is what drove me to make the decision to open Building AAC, because even if I only impacted a few individuals those few people didn't have to wait to receive high quality, research based AAC services, they didn't have to drive 2 1/2 hours away, and they could be seen in their natural environment. The hours of research and work that I did in a very short amount of time still amazes me as I reflect on it. Opening a small business is not an easy task, especially in the healthcare field as you have to worry about things like HIPPA compliance, rates, and liability insurance, to name a few. My husband helped a little, but I did the vast majority of it all on my own. I learned how to build a website, buy a domain, setup a HIPPA compliant email system, I registered my DBA, filled out and submitted my LLC paperwork, got my EIN number, and so much more. I didn’t take six months or a year to do all of this. In a matter of 6-8 weeks from hearing about the closed program I made it a reality.
Like many small business owners I invested some of my personal finances to start up Building AAC, setup a business plan that allowed me to keep costs low by providing cash based services in individual’s homes, which also fit with my mission, and hit the ground running not really sure if I was making a mistake by jumping in head first!
Approximately six months later here I am reflecting on my success. I’m not a millionaire, I’m not doing private practice full time, and I don’t have a waiting list of clients, but none of those are things that are a part of my vision. What I do have is a small business that is no longer in the red. I’ve been able to make enough to cover my initial investment, pay for my reoccurring costs (my license for practicing Speech Pathology, the costs of maintaining my website/domain, my liability insurance, etc.), and now pay for me to attend the ATIA conference. When I was first discussing opening a private practice with my husband, who has been 110% supportive through this journey, my financial goal was to be able to guilelessly pay for continuing education, so being able to pay over $1,000 to attend the amazing ATIA conference is a dream fulfilled. Specializing in a field that focuses on technology requires a large investment in continuing education, both time and money. The tools are always changing and the research is evolving. Paying to attend conferences, paying to be a member of USSAAC, and investing time and money for the AAC journal, is what I spend much of my profits on. I reinvest in myself so that I can provide my clients and the students that I work with the best services in AAC.
So, being able to fund this trip, and not take away from my family’s finances was one of the reasons I was smiling on my run. I earned every drop of that money doing what I absolutely love doing. My other job in the school district that I work for is what pays the bills, insures my family, and helps put food on the table. Fortunately, for me, three years ago I took a huge leap leaving colleagues who I still consider some of my best friends, students that I loved, and in a school that I believed in for a new opportunity. I was feeling stifled in that position; continuing education was not funded, and my salary didn't allow me to pursue conferences on my own. I left for a different position, an Assistive Technology Program Support Teacher, in a larger district. It was one of the hardest decisions I ever made and one of the best decisions I ever made. I love the district that I work in. The Director of Special Education values our AT department and understands that to be the very best you have to invest in continuing education when dealing with the fast pace of technology. I have been able to attend Closing the Gap (CTG), another huge AT conference, held in Minneapolis because of this commitment. This year while attending CTG I attended many wonderful presentations, but a couple of sessions that Erin Sheldon presented on Cortical Visual Impairment (CVI) really impacted me. (Check out the recent podcast Erin did with "Talking with Tech"! In the show notes she includes a link to her CTG presentation!) She talked about using eye tracking software with her daughter who has CVI so that she had some insight into what she was seeing. The research around literacy and eye tracking that she presented was fascinating, as well. The presentations had a huge impact on me. I've been able to take some of the principles that I've learned and apply them to some of the students in my district as well as my private practice. I recently started working with a client who has a high level CVI. When I started with her I was going in the direction of partner assisted scanning, possibly with PODD, but I also had access to a Tobii Dynavox I-12+, so I spontaneously decided to try it with her, because what would it hurt, right? I really just wanted to know what she was looking at and if she was recognizing anything. To say that she has shocked us all is an understatement. This amazing girl will turn her head away from the screen, looking left or right using her peripheral vision, and then turn back and target moving items across all parts of the screen. She has told her family "I love you" and even worked on some emergent literacy and writing activities using eye gaze. All of this was possible because I attended CTG this year learning about the power of eye tracking for something other than communication. This is the power of investing in yourself. I am constantly learning more and bringing that back to my community in a variety of ways, thanks to my small business and the commitment from my school district.
Another HUGE honor was joining the Wisconsin AAC Network and taking a leadership role within this group. If you haven’t checked it out on Facebook, do so! This is a way that I am giving back to the AT/AAC community in an effort to help build capacity for all SLPs working in the schools. The education committee formed a grassroots group called the “Wisconsin Assistive Technology Regional Networks” or WATRN. A small, core group of us, who volunteer all of our time, had a vision of bringing quality AT services back to Wisconsin educators, a hole left when the state stopped funding WATI (Wisconsin Assisive Technology Initiative) at the end of the 2008-2009 school year. On Friday, we held our second regional meeting in Oshkosh at CESA 6 and had over 20 educators pack the room. We were hopeful that we’d get a better turnout than our summer meetings (we held two: one at CESA 7 with about 8 people attending and one at CESA 6 where nobody showed up.) So, imagine my excitement (and nervousness) to have so many attend that we had to get extra chairs and were literally crammed like sardines in a small room! The meeting didn’t go exactly the way I envisioned (there was more lecturing and not enough discussion, in my opinion), but it was better than what’s been done in the last 10 years in the state of Wisconsin, which is next to nothing for educators who support students who use AT/AAC. I’m so excited for the future of WATRN, and to grow these relationships and skills with my colleagues in my region so that we can all provide individuals in our community the best AT/AAC services possible. Building AAC will continue to give me the opportunity to attend conferences and bring back that learned knowledge to this group! I am humbled to be leading this group of committed educators and to be working side-by-side with the Wisconsin AAC Network and the leaders of WATRN. Reflecting on the culmination of our planning for these events made me smile while I was running.
To end this blog post, I want to thank all of the clients that have entrusted me to help build better communication with them. I'd also like to thank the school districts who felt that I had something valuable to teach their staff and invited me to come in to provide training. I am thankful for the educators that showed up to the first two WATRN meetings and shared in my vision of providing high quality services to individuals with complex communication needs. I am grateful to the speech therapists and teachers in my school district that allow me to come in to collaborate with them to find AT/AAC solutions for their students, giving me new ideas and allowing me to share them with others. In all honesty, though, I would be writing none of this without the unending support of my husband, kids, and our families. They believe in me and push me to be the best version of myself, whether that's running a 1/2 marathon or deciding to open a private practice in the midst of our already busy lives! My husband is my biggest supporter! He is my bookkeeper, takes care of the kids so that I can follow this crazy dream, he adapts toys, builds switch interfaces, finds me the best deals on iPads, provides IT support, and never complains or makes me feel guilty about any of it. So, here is a picture of me smiling, grateful for the past 6 months and this amazing journey I have been on. I'm so excited to see what 2019 holds for Building AAC! There will be new and existing clients who will be impacted by Building AAC, the new trends/products/research that will influence the field, and hopefully a whole lot of educators who will feel more comfortable working with individuals with complex communication needs! Thank you, again, for the most amazing year!