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Archer Calder spent his childhood unable to talk with his younger sister, Della, his only sibling. Della has Bainbridge-Ropers syndrome, a rare genetic condition which affects her ability to eat, move and speak. “I’ve never grown up with a neurotypical sibling, so that comparison is hard for me to make,” Archer, 17, told CNN. “But I’ll say that she’s definitely very opinionated. If things don’t quite go her way, she lets you know that.
Della, 14, grew up using a combination of hand signals and short sounds to communicate with her family and caregivers. In her early teens, she was introduced to augmentative and alternative communications (AAC) applications, programs designed to help people who have trouble with speech or language skills. But her family was disappointed with the results.
Archer felt it was unfair the ability to communicate, something he believed was fundamental to being human, was causing families like his to make financial sacrifices.
“She wants to communicate like everybody else. And just imagine how hard it would be if you couldn’t communicate by talking to people,” he said. So Archer began using his coding abilities to develop a web-based application called Freespeech. The site can be accessed from any device — phones, tablets and computers — with internet access. The simple website lets users program buttons with images of their choice to represent words. When clicked, the word is sounded out loud. Unlike many other AAC applications, Freespeech’s buttons are easily editable, a feature Archer believed was critical to how Della wanted to communicate. “Della’s interests come and go. We need to be able to add buttons for all the ‘Clarence’ characters and add all the ‘Addams Family’ characters and then take them off when she loses interest,” said Chad Calder, Della’s and Archer’s father, referring to Della’s favorite TV shows. “These are the things she wants to talk about.” While there was still a learning curve for Della to start using Freespeech, it wasn’t long before the Calder family noticed a change in how Della was able to communicate with them. “In the past, when we had to run errands, we just took her, she was never really consulted,” Chad told CNN. “[Freespeech] has really helped to bring her more into the conversation and more into the dynamic of our family.” The family says it has also helped them discover more of her personality.