A True Love Language

Cypress teen develops app to communicate with non-verbal sister

Article by Stephanie Parnell

Photography by Shannon Raske

Originally published in Cypress Lifestyle

Archer Calder could never communicate with his only sister. Della Calder has a rare genetic condition called Bainbridge-Ropers syndrome, which affects her ability to move, eat, and use verbal communication. Della had always used hand signals and short sounds to communicate with her family members and caregivers. She’d also been introduced to augmentative and alternative communications (AAC), but her family had never been truly satisfied with the results.

“I've always had an amazing relationship with my sister Della. Even with her disability, I still feel like we have a really good connection and relationship,” said Archer. “We actually used to eat lunch together every day when we both went to Cypress Woods high school which was really nice, and I would spend a lot of time volunteering in her class.”

With the insufficient results that ACC provided Della, Archer decided to take matters into his own hands. He developed an application called FreeSpeech because he realized that AAC could be better utilized in Della's life.

“She'd have a bunch of words from school loaded on her device but nothing she actually wanted to talk about, so seeing that showed me there was definitely a need for a more usable app that can connect more people to the words they use every day,” said Archer. “Also seeing my parents pay so much money for AAC over the years really inspired me to create FreeSpeech as I believed very strongly that though it was amazing that my parents made the sacrifice to buy those AAC products, no other family should have to do the same.”

The app, which has been out for about a year and has undergone a number of iterations, is free for anyone to use at any time. Della uses FreeSpeech for things like asking for snacks, asking for Starbucks or McDonalds, and she even uses it to talk about her favorite shows and movies. She likes to talk about her friends and sometimes just has conversations with Archer or other family members.

“She will just randomly use the app to speak about something and I will just talk back to her,” remarked Archer. “It's really amazing because that is something that she was never able to do before so easily.”

Archer has always been interested in computers, and using computers to create things digitally. Early in elementary school, he dabbled in digital music production and experimented with digital art and game design when he was in middle and high school. He was captivated by coding and computer language early on, so creating an app like FreeSpeech was right up his alley.

“I got the idea for FreeSpeech when I was 15 or 16 while out getting lunch with my parents,” said Archer. “I basically just got the idea that I could use my passion for programming to help people and change lives which was really edifying for me to consider at the time and it still is of course.”

Archer has more future plans for FreeSpeech too, as well as interests in developing other applications, such as creating a suite of products to try and create better AAC services for everyone. For example, he wants to create an app that allows people to read books in an AAC-like interface, so his sister could read her favorite storybooks out loud with big images and lots of accessibility options. With his impressive technology acumen and work ethic, he’s likely to accomplish his goals.

“I want people to know that Della, and anyone else who struggles with disabilities, are regular people like anyone else and they deserve the help and attention we afford to people who are not disabled or who maybe have less visible disabilities,” said Archer. “That's why I think technology-related accessibility is important because everyone deserves the ability to enjoy technology. As for me, I'm just a regular guy who enjoys software development and digital activism.”

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