Success & News Stories


See him now: For NJ man with Maestro, finding and using his voice is a lifelong labor of love

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of periodic encore success stories on previously featured individuals who now use a new generation of DynaVox Mayer-Johnson products. Find original success story here!


Sa’ar Shacham, 28, started two important chapters in his life during 2012.

That summer, he moved with three longtime housemates to a newly built home on the Mullica Hill, NJ campus of the non-profit Bancroft NeuroHealth residential program, the rural community where Sa’ar has lived for ten years.
He loves it. Sa’ar spends a lot of his free time in the common areas of their home because he likes being near the hub of activity, said Danielle Owens, the house manager. His friendliness shines, she said, though he is non-verbal because of his autism. When they go walking, Sa’ar greets others using his DynaVox Maestro augmentative and alternative (AAC) communication device to get the words out. His use of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) technology for the past 20 years, including four DynaVox devices, complements the joy of being his own person. Sa’ar is good at letting others know his schedule, when he feels hungry or tired, and even speak his piece on less superficial matters. He can, for instance, say when he wants company and when he’d rather be alone.  

In 2012, Sa’ar also made a seamless switch from the DynaVox V to the newer Maestro. Owens said the technology surpasses the static picture symbols Sa’ar has also used to convey thoughts in terms of its speed and accuracy. She can read his body language and facial expressions well, having known him for seven years. But new direct care staff sometimes finds themselves at a loss when it comes to understanding Sa’ar, resulting in communication gaps and unnecessary stress.

“When someone new comes through the door, that’s when the DynaVox is beneficial,” Owens said. “We try to utilize it as much as possible in his routine. He has mastered it.”

”It makes communication with Sa’ar possible. Period.”

Sa’ar once tended to become upset by communication breakdowns, but now delights in the reliable voice he has found through technology. Besides the vocabulary and images that provide everyday communication tools, the Maestro offers visual schedules that help Sa’ar keep order to his day. He makes good use of its M3 player, navigating to an Elvis Presley icon for tunes by “The King of Rock and Roll” and other oldies that comprise most of his music collection. The nicest part, no doubt, is that Sa’ar can quickly find the words that let him ask for what he needs, whether to be reminded of a change in his daily routine or for privacy when he wants to chill out and listen to music in his room.

Owens says Sa’ar is the best teacher when others want to learn something new about the Maestro. Gesia Shacham saw it on a recent visit with her son. Sa’ar repeated a statement using the device and the device kept repeating it. He knew instantly how to make it stop and where to find his next message.

“That’s his voice, he’s using it,” his mother said. “Like flipping the pages in a book, so nonchalantly, in a breezy way. Unbelievable.”

Such moments take his mom back to when four-year-old Sa’ar launched his journey through a world of language with his “genius book”—her nickname for the large binder she filled with Picture Communication Symbols organized into color-coded parts of speech and categories.  Her son has come a long way.

Gesia Shacham said the Maestro’s ease of use, large screen, durability, and portability are perfect for Sa’ar. So are its strong visual supports. He can communicate comfortably in language of his choosing with device content that includes photos taken by his mom and crisp symbolic images. Like all things important, discovering and owning is a process, a labor of love. Sa’ar takes his Maestro almost everywhere—on walks, on the van during his weekly Meals on Wheels volunteer delivery job and to work. From 8 AM to 3 PM most days, Sa’ar works at the Bancroft wood shop, greenhouse, or craft shop painting decorative footstools.

“Some people teach math in college. Some people paint stools,” Gesia Shacham said. “And it’s all good.”

Communication is central to Sa’ar’s personal growth, said Christopher Ilconich, the clinical manager at Bancroft who oversees Sa’ar’s vocational activities. While Sa’ar uses the Maestro primarily to make requests, it also lets him reach out and helps others get to know him. Ilconich and his colleagues want to expand daily communication opportunities for Sa’ar and topics for him to talk about.  Sa’ar’s mom is instrumental in the process, Ilconich said, because she “has consistently added whatever he has needed to his DynaVox and has been able to transfer everything she has ever programmed for him from device to device.”

It is nice to see Sa’ar’s enthusiasm emerge through his voice, which happens when mom brings treats on her weekly visits. The exchange of words is not so much about Sa’ar getting what he wants. It is about a young man who is pleasant to be around. When he knows she brought his favorite snack, he is quick to share the news, blurting out, “I love to eat pistachios!” with the Maestro’s aid.

“He likes to do this a few times while waiting for the goods to be presented,” Ilconich said.

Gesia Shacham likes that Sa’ar can express feelings without frustration.

He can say, “It’s not my day. I’m not happy.”

Sometimes when the day is going well, he’ll say so without words.

“Then he smiles,” she said. “That’s what I want for him…to be happy.”

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