See him now: Young Kansas entrepreneur exceeding expectations in communication and life
At 24, Joe Steffy is synonymous throughout America with Poppin' Joe's Kettle Korn, the business he started in 2005 in Louisburg, Kansas, where he lives. As he grows professionally and personally, Joe steadily chips away at assumptions that success is not possible for people with disabilities, particularly those who cannot speak. Though non-verbal from the effects of Down syndrome and an unspecified autism spectrum disorder, Joe has found his voice. While surmounting countless everyday challenges, he has adapted to advances in the speech communication technology through which he has built many bridges with his world. The DynaVox products he has used for about two decades likewise have kept pace with his unique lifestyle.
And the bridge-building continues whether Joe is discussing kettle corn flavors with customers at his festival booth, directing his employees or sharing his story at a national conference. There is new depth and crispness to Joe's communication with large audiences as well as in one-on-one exchanges since he transitioned from the DynaVox V to the Maestro, his fourth DynaVox device, in early spring 2011.
"It's just too cool," said his mother Janet. "He just loves it."
These days, Joe has something especially exciting to talk about. When the Kansas legislature passed the Employment First Initiative Act, he attended the signing ceremony at the state capitol in Topeka on June 1, 2011. It was a milestone for Joe because he attended hearings and testified in support of the law, designed to ensure that competitive and integrated employment is the first option considered for individuals with disabilities. Joe stated his case with the help of the DynaVox DV4 he used back then. He enjoyed celebrating the law's passage with other guests of Governor Sam Brownback and used the Maestro while mingling.
Soon after Joe got the Maestro, he used it to deliver the closing address at the Power Up assistive technology conference of the Missouri Assistive Technology Advisory Council. While not so new at public speaking, Joe is at a turning point. With the Maestro, he can speak while running the visual portion of his presentation for his audience from the device, a task his father Ray previously handled from a laptop computer.
It delights Dr. Jane Wegner, director of the Schiefelbusch Speech, Language and Hearing Clinic at the University of Kansas, to see Joe take that step toward independence. Wegner and her students have shepherded his communication success for nearly a decade. When they met, Joe had long been using a DynaMyte3100, his first DynaVox device, obtained on the recommendation of a speech-language pathologist at Mercy Medical Health Center in Mason City, Iowa, near the family farm where he spent his early childhood. Joe has slowly and surely reaped bountiful harvests of language for self-expression in the years since, and the changing technology has accommodated his preference for structure and visual learning. He went smoothly from the V to the Maestro within a matter of months, thanks in part to the familiar setup of content on both devices. "He didn't feel like he was lost and had to start over," Wegner said. Joe is part of a group of folks using devices who meet at the clinic to practice communication skills. The arrangement of content on the Maestro lets Joe find desired words quicker than before. Typically reserved when it comes to initiating conversation, he is making strides in that area. He asks other members to sit by him. His skill in creating novel messages is increasing. The Maestro's built-in camera is also leading to more meaningful communication opportunities. Joe likes taking pictures to keep as a point of reference when telling others about his activities or as reminders of what he needs to do at work on a given day. Companions help with writing captions and organizing the images. They can add or edit device content at Joe's impromptu suggestions. Before leaving a restaurant, for example, he may want to program information from the menu into the device to save for ordering on future visits.
"It gives you a rich basis for language," Janet Steffy said. Her son and the technology, she said, have something huge in common.
"DynaVox has come a long way."