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How technology helped a nonspeaking autistic woman find her voice

Jordyn Zimmerman on disability rights
Nonspeaking autistic woman embarks on journey to advocate for disability rights 05:16

Technology has allowed activist Jordyn Zimmerman, a nonspeaking autistic woman, to find her voice.

Zimmerman's early life was spent communicating through body language and pictures. She bounced between numerous school systems in Ohio. It wasn't until the age of 18 — when she began using Proloquo2Go, an augmentative and alternative communication app — that her true self was finally revealed.

Now 29, she described the moment she had a legitimate voice for the first time as "joyful," but "deeply confusing" for her family.

"They had been told for 18, almost 19 years by so many professionals about who I was, what I could do, how I would not be able to feel deeply with others or empathize, how I was incapable of learning, communicating and engaging," she said. "And here I was sharing and debunking everything that was made to be true for so long, what was wildly inaccurate."

She said the iPad technology gave her "so much confidence to really connect with people" and transformed her relationship with her brother, fostering a bond that had been nonexistent due to her communication barriers.

"My brother and I have this amazing, ever-growing relationship, which now started 10 years ago," she said. "We didn't have the chance of knowing each other before that time."

Zimmerman's voice, which went unheard for so long, has now made its way to some of the biggest platforms. She serves on the President's Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities and gives presentations at schools across the country. Her goal is to get better resources and educational opportunities for students with disabilities.

She said that she would like to see technology used more in education to help students who are non-speaking.

"When students are non-speaking or cannot rely on speech to be understood, our school systems frequently segregate them," she said.  "And once a student is segregated, it's hard to shake things up. We have to rewrite those rules."

Zimmerman's direct communication style caught the attention of Sarah Herrlinger, Apple's head of global accessibility. Zimmerman was chosen as a distinguished educator by the company and uses Apple's Live Speech feature in her daily communication.

"Jordyn has one of the best senses of humor, and to watch her facial expression as she has that thing that she wants to express, and then she types it out and just gets that kind of rise, smile in her face. And I love the fact that our technology is really just helping her show the world exactly who she is," said Herrlinger.

Zimmerman expressed hope that her advocacy work would create a more understanding and supportive world for all children.

"Every time I present and share my story, I impact one person. And every time I share feedback on an experience that might lead to positively impacting another person, I feel good and I'm proud about changing the narrative in that way," Zimmerman said. "I know I can't change the world alone, but I can certainly create people to facilitate meaningful improvements and help show that we all have valuable contributions to make."

This story has been updated with the full name of the app Proloquo2Go.

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