Imagine stepping onto a playground and seeing a colorful board filled with symbols that empower children to express their feelings, needs, and joys, even if they can’t use speech to communicate. This is not a glimpse into a utopian future; it’s a reality we’re creating here and now. And the journey from concept to fruition is a story of passion, innovation, and an unwavering commitment to inclusion.
Yesterday, Apple finally gave the green light and made an app I had been working on for months available on the App Store for anyone to download. Expressive Go is a result of my commitment to use my skills, knowledge, and mission to make the world better for children with communication differences and their families.
However, this article requires me to introduce myself a bit more to those of you who are not familiar with my background and how my journey allowed me to tie up the loose ends of things that should have been happening a while ago. So, let me introduce myself.
The Journey that Led Me to This Moment
I am a Speech-Language Pathologist by trade, but my path to becoming an SLP in the United States was far from conventional. At 21, I left my home country of Brazil, driven by hope and the backing of a unique grant from the Brazilian government.
In 2004, I was incredibly fortunate to be selected for a transformative exchange student program between Brazil and the United States. The program, aptly named “Promoting the Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Society Through Assistive Technology: Culturally Appropriate Solutions,” was a turning point for me. Coming from a disadvantaged background and attending a public university in Brazil, this opportunity was the catalyst that opened doors I had only dreamed of.
Fast-forward nearly 20 years, and I stand here as an American citizen, fluent in three languages, and the proud founder and CEO of two successful businesses: Smarty Ears and Smarty Symbols. Yet the journey extends beyond this. Over these two decades, I’ve developed more than 70 apps featured on the App Store, created a diverse and inclusive symbol library called Smarty Symbols, and installed hundreds of communication boards in public spaces—all in just over a year. These apps have reached over 550,000 users across 50 countries and have been translated into six languages. Each download symbolizes a life that could be changed, a voice that could be heard, highlighting the global demand for inclusive communication solutions.
Smarty Symbols is not just a library; it’s a global resource used in various apps, learning software, and even as visual support at home. The pride I feel for this work is beyond words. My journey toward creating meaningful change has been a labor of love and dedication spanning nearly two decades. The skills and resources I’ve garnered, in conjunction with my extraordinary team, empower me to leave an enduring impact on the world—for my children and future generations.
During my early years in the United States, I had the immense privilege of learning from and collaborating with pioneering AAC professionals and change-makers. At a time when I was still mastering the English language, icons like Dr. Amy Goldman and Dr. Diane Bryen were instrumental in my development. I first crossed paths with them in 2004 as an exchange student at Temple University and later as a student worker at the Pennsylvania Institute for Assistive Technology (PIAT). (Dr. Bryen even helped me secure donated furniture for my first apartment.)
Times have certainly changed since those initial steps, but my mission and passion have only intensified.
My local effort in 2021: A Groundbreaking Project in Rowlett, Texas
The Playground Close to My Heart
Kids Kingdom in Rowlett, Texas, is more than just another local playground; it’s where my own children play, laugh, and explore. This park, with its unique features like a dinosaur sand area and a giant robot statue, was the perfect candidate for a communication board designed to make play inclusive for all kids.
A Year of Emails to Nowhere
I thought this would be a straightforward project. After all, who wouldn’t want to make a playground more inclusive? I designed a custom communication board tailored specifically for Kids Kingdom—at zero cost to the city. Yet, despite a year of back-and-forth emails, I found myself at a standstill. It was as though my messages were floating into a black hole, never to be seen or acknowledged again.
The Turning Point: Taking the Mic in March
Then came March of 2022, Autism Awareness Month. Frustrated but not defeated, I decided it was time to change tactics. I stood up in a crowded city meeting, microphone in hand, and laid it all out. I spoke not just as a speech-language pathologist with years of experience, but as a mom whose kids played in that very park. The room was silent as I made my case for why this communication board was not just a ‘nice-to-have’ but a necessity. Right then and there, I received the Ok from the city to move on with the project! yay!
Doors Start to Open
That moment was a turning point. Not only did the communication board finally get installed at Kids Kingdom, but it also marked the beginning of something much larger. From that single advocacy effort, doors started to open, and what began as a one-woman crusade transformed into a nationwide movement. Now, hundreds of communication boards, just like the one at Kids Kingdom, are making parks around the country more inclusive.
The journey was neither short nor easy, but every email ignored and every hurdle overcome made the eventual success all the sweeter. If I could make it happen in my own backyard, then I know you can do it in yours. And that, my friends, is how you turn a local project into a national impact.
Scaling the Vision: From One Playground to a Nationwide Movement
After the Kids Kingdom breakthrough, it was clear that the need for inclusive playgrounds was bigger than one city, or even one state. This was a nationwide, if not global, necessity. I knew I couldn’t do it alone. So, I did what any committed entrepreneur would do: I assembled a dedicated team within Smarty Symbols, solely focused on bringing inclusive communication boards to cities and school districts across the country.
Introducing a New Platform: PlaygroundCommunicationBoards.com
Understanding that navigating the intricacies of city governance and school district policies could be overwhelming for individual advocates, we needed a hub—a central place where all the necessary resources could be found. Thus, PlaygroundCommunicationBoards.com was born. This website serves as a one-stop-shop for everything related to making public spaces more communicative and inclusive.
Streamlining the Process
One of the biggest challenges in any advocacy work is cutting through the red tape. Our new website and team aim to simplify this process by providing ready-to-use resources, including customizable communication board designs, installation guides, and even templates for reaching out to city officials or potential sponsors. We’ve essentially created a toolkit designed to make advocacy work as straightforward as possible.
Welcoming Remi Salami: A Champion for Inclusion
As our mission expanded, it became increasingly clear that we needed someone with the expertise and passion to liaise directly with organizations eager to embrace inclusivity. That’s when we welcomed Remi Salami to our team as the Sales Director for Inclusion Initiatives.
Remi’s role is instrumental in bridging the gap between what communities need and what we offer. She not only understands the technicalities of implementing communication boards but also appreciates the profound social impact these tools can have. Remi works closely with city officials, school districts, and other organizations, guiding them through the process of making their public spaces more inclusive. From fundraising strategies to final installations, Remi is there every step of the way, ensuring each project’s success.
Her contributions have already made a significant impact, aiding several communities in launching their own inclusive playground projects. And this is just the beginning. With Remi on board, we’re poised to accelerate our efforts and extend our reach, making inclusive playgrounds not just a possibility but a nationwide reality.
Reach out to Remi Salami here.
The Impact So Far
Since the launch of this initiative, we’ve seen a groundswell of support. Cities and school districts are reaching out, eager to make their playgrounds more inclusive. And this is just the beginning. Our vision doesn’t stop at playgrounds; we see these communication boards becoming a standard feature in public libraries, community centers, and more.
By creating a streamlined, replicable process, we’ve lowered the barriers to entry for anyone interested in making their community more inclusive. And that means we’re one step closer to a world where every child can play, learn, and communicate, no matter their abilities.
Hundreds of communication boards have been installed around the country in many different places beyond playgrounds.
What if these communication boards could speak?
Imagine walking into a playground and not only seeing communication boards but also having the ability to bring those boards to life through an app. Sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie, right? Well, welcome to the reality we’ve just created with Expressive Go!
The genesis of this transformative initiative can be traced back to a conversation I had with Catherine Fredericks at the NJSHA convention earlier this year. Catherine is a trailblazing SLP in New Jersey and has been instrumental in steering Smarty Symbols’ communication board projects. Her invaluable insights were the catalyst that led to the installation of our very first communication board in Texas back in 2021.
However, I soon realized that waiting for partnerships with other app developers would significantly slow down the process. So, in true entrepreneurial spirit, I did what I’ve always done when faced with a challenge: I took action. Along with my incredible team, we overhauled our existing app, Expressive, transforming it into what is now Expressive Go.
The outcome? A groundbreaking initiative called “All Voices, Any Place,” designed to make communication universally accessible. This isn’t just another project for me; it’s a labor of love, born from weeks of tireless work, sleepless nights, and a vision that stretches far beyond the horizon.
And let me tell you, this is only the tip of the iceberg. With Expressive Go, we’re not merely dabbling in innovation; we’re setting the stage for a future where everyone, regardless of their communication abilities, can express themselves freely. A future where playgrounds don’t just entertain but also empower.
So, as I sit here, admittedly exhausted but incredibly fulfilled, I can’t help but think about the immense potential that lies ahead. Together, we can change the narrative. We can change lives. And most importantly, we can change the future.
What's ahed from me
When I think about the road ahead, my heart swells with a mix of anticipation, hope, and a smidgen of frustration. You see, collaboration has always been one of my core values. I’ve consistently extended a helping hand to budding entrepreneurs in the AAC world, offering them the chance to integrate Smarty Symbols into their systems. And while I’ve found eager collaborators among startups, I’ve found that established companies in the AAC landscape haven’t been as receptive.
This led to a moment of reckoning for me. While I had offers on the table for more established AAC app developers to integrate Smarty Symbols, those calls went unanswered. As a result, I had to dust off an app that was initially slated for sunsetting—Expressive—and give it a new lease on life as Expressive Go.
So, what’s my mission now? It’s straightforward but profoundly impactful. I want to ensure that families who might not encounter an AAC app or device for another three years gain the awareness they need now to support their child’s communication journey. If Expressive Go serves as the gateway to robust, meaningful communication for these families, then I’ll know I’ve achieved my mission.
As Expressive Go enters its next development phase, I recognize there’s much room for growth. But know this: my heart is steadfast, and my mission is unwavering. I continue to welcome collaborators and partners with open arms because there’s enough room—and need—for all of us in this quest to make the world a more inclusive place for children with communication differences.
In this journey, I promise to keep my heart honest and my impact significant. After all, when it comes to changing lives, there’s no such thing as too many helpers or too much love.