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Spokane scientist leading researcher on aphasia

Feb 16, 2016 | by Lingraphica

By Erica Curless ericac@spokesman.com (509) 459-5439

SUNDAY, FEB. 14, 2016, 7 P.M.

Spokane scientist Richard Steele had career angst, a feeling that he could do more. So 30 years ago he custom-made a job that launched him as a world expert in helping people with aphasia improve their speech and communication after strokes and brain injuries.

That was the birth of what is today known as Lingraphica, the leading provider of communication devices and apps for people with aphasia, a communication disorder that affects a person’s ability to process and use language. Aphasia often makes it difficult for poeple to speak, understand speech and read and write.

It’s estimated 2 million people in the nation have aphasia, with problems ranging from difficulty retrieving the name of objects to severe damage to the portion of the brain responsible for language, making communication nearly impossible.

Lingraphica lead the research to dispel the century-long belief that patients had only a six-month window of “spontaneous recovery” after a stroke or brain injury for successful rehab therapy. Steele said people with aphasia can make on-going significant improvements.

“We show people long after (six months) that they remain candidates if they have the right tools, methods and benefits,” said Steele, the company’s chief scientist and an original founder in the Silicon Valley startup that is now based in New Jersey.

The company is also leading efforts to bring more recognition and awareness about aphasia. Four times as many people are diagnosed with it annually than cerebral palsy or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) combined. Yet aphasia doesn’t have as high a profile.

It’s common for people to contact Lingraphica years after their initial diagnosis, asking about what more they can do to help their communication, Steele said. That’s why the company has a wide offering of tool and programs, from 14 free apps to practice speech to the AllTalk device that can use EyeGaze technology and an on-screen keyboard to type what the patient wants the device to speak.

Lingraphica also offers online therapy with more than 11,500 language and cognitive exercises that are used by therapists and individuals. Clinicians can also link to clients and provide online therapy sessions. There are also virtual support groups.

Eastern Washington University uses Lingraphica devices in its diagnostic clinic for alternative and augmentative communications. Jane Pimentel, an associate professor in the Department of Communications Disorders, said the therapy programs help put practice sentences and icons in real-life context. It’s also therapy that people can do every day, on their own and take ownership of the results.

“It’s really grounded in excellent theory and research that Dick has been involved in from day one,” Pimentel said.

She added that even though Steele isn’t a trained therapist, he has a good perspective and understands what it’s like to have aphasia and an inability to communicate. He holds three U.S. patents related to rehabilitation.

With an undergraduate degree in physics from Stanford University and a master’s and doctorate in Slavic languages and linguistics from Harvard University, it took Steele years to find the world of aphasia rehab. He taught Slavic language and linguistics at several colleges and universities and, for fun, taught himself computer technology. That’s when he decided he needed to do something more so he combined his love for language, his interest in creating models and predicting outcomes along with his desire to teach and help people.

He quit teaching and took a job with the Rehabilitation Research and Development Center of the Palo Alto Veterans Administration Medical Center. There he was introduced to aphasia research, at that time in the 1980s, it was basically using index cards with icons on them to help stimulate the brain and word recognition. With two other partners, they took on a project to use emerging technology for aphasia rehabilitation. In 1991, the first devices were ready for market.

“It gives me really great pleasure to have helped people,” Steele said, on a recent morning in his South Hill home. Since marrying his wife (former Spokesman-Review reporter Karen Dorn Steele) in 1983, Steele worked in California and spent one week a month in Spokane. That changed in 2001, when he moved to Spokane permanently and now telecommutes and flies to New Jersey regularly.

With a wild plume of long, graying hair, Steele has the look of a stereotypical mad scientist. He’s intense, yet good-natured, always open for a laugh or joke – and anything but mad. At 74, he’s energized and aspirational, constantly working to innovate how to improve technology and networks so people with aphasia to regain use and understanding of language.

He sat at the dining table, with one of the first computers loaded with Lingraphica software. It looks like a safe, large and thick. It sat beside a thin laptop, where he demonstrated a word-association exercise that focuses on identifying objects in a house.

He clicked on the house icon. It got large and leaped out of the screen, a technique that returns humans to the basic instinct to notice something that jumps at you. The icon cut away to a blueprint of the house’s interior. Steele clicked on the kitchen icon. It framed itself and leaped out at the viewer. The computer pronounced the word kitchen. The user can keep moving through levels to the level of items on the table. If you click on the salt icon, it shows the crystals shaking on to food.

“There’s pragmatic information in every task,” Steele said.

Michele Hart-Henry was recently promoted to Lingraphica’s executive vice president. She came to the company four years ago, and said she knew nothing about aphasia until her husband was diagnosed with brain cancer. He woke up from surgery with aphasia.

“Because people don’t really know about it those afflicted with it suffer in silence, literally and figuratively,” Hart-Henry said. “We are trying to change that. We believe our job is to create products and services to reconnect with families and friends.”

She said Steele is humble about his accomplishments and the fact that he and a couple others kept the company running during shaky times in the late 1990s.

“He is Lingraphica in so many ways,” she said, adding that she enjoys that he starts monthly staff meetings with obscure, random and often hilarious trivia, the most recent about evolution history.

Between 1995 and 2001, Lingraphica managed a network of therapy centers in hospitals. That was the only way to get the tools to patients because Medicare wouldn’t reimburse for speech-generating devises used for aphasia therapy. Then Medicare changed its reimbursement policy in 2001 and still today pays for aphasia therapy devices such as those provided by Lingraphica.

Occasionally Steele guest lectures at EWU. He’s a hit with students, Pimentel said.

“They are always so impressed he lives in Spokane,” she said.

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