Original story from TCU Magazine
by Rick Waters ’95
Updated: Wednesday, January 09, 2013
Barbara Fernandes ’08 MA still calls it the “a-ha moment.”
In fall 2008, she was a first-year speech pathologist and language evaluator for the Irving school district, the only bilingual therapist in the district, when she met Michael, a 5-year-old preschooler who had not spoken at school in his first two months. His teacher suspected autism.
Fernandes knew the boy liked cars and trains, but he had little interest in talking or looking at flashcards with her. He did, however, think her mobile phone was a toy with which he could entertain himself.
Rather than put the device away, Fernandes did a search for “transportation,” downloaded some images of various vehicles and handed over her iPhone.
“Boat,” the boy whispered. “Plane.”
His voice grew louder and more assured.
“He just began naming them. I was just trying to get him to speak, for him to say a word, and this unlocked him,” she said. “I never expected to have that kind of immediate response.”
The iPhone was less than a year old then, but Fernandes realized paper flashcards were an ancient technology and mobile devices had worlds of possibility with images and sound and animation.
A technophile growing up in Brazil, Fernandes tinkered with her own website growing up and had come to the United States to study assistive technology, but now she had a vision for how it could be used in schools and homes with children with disabilities and their parents.
In fall 2009, she published her first app under the name Smarty Ears. It featured the entire phonetic alphabet with corresponding sounds, words and images for each letter or blend. She took it to conferences and got a lukewarm response.
“Most people were very resistant at first, but some were really intrigued,” she said. “I was surprised it wasn’t 100 percent.”
But families loved it. What used to be a frustrating daily practice was now being seen as play.
As word-of-mouth spread to practitioners and they tried it, the app began selling fast. By then, Fernandes was about to release her second app — on conjugating verbs — and had four more in the works.
In the spring of 2010, Apple released the iPad and Smarty Ears “really took off,” she said.
“It pushed me to make my old apps better,” she said. “The tablet is really the ideal size for working with children.”
Now, Fernandes has 60 apps in English, Spanish and her native Portuguese and is considered a pioneer in the speech therapy industry. Ranging in cost from $1.99 to $49.99, Smarty Ears apps are the No. 1 brand with more than 150,000 downloads and are used in more than 40 countries, covering language development, articulation, autism, aphasia and voice disorders.
Fernandes and her husband Jonathan, a former English teacher who now helps craft the curriculum, employ six programmers, illustrators and interface designers. Smarty Ears has published 26 authors in nearly every practice within speech pathology and language evaluation. The company also has an 11-member advisory board of experts, parents and teachers.
Those first Smarty Ears apps seem primitive compared to the ones the company makes now, which include games, stories and animation that rival computer games and Saturday morning cartoons. Voice recording and camera technology also soup up the experience, allowing students to listen and watch their own mouths form phonics and sounds. There are also sophisticated reporting components built in, which track students’ scores and allow speech therapists to monitor progress.
Now, Fernandes is a highly sought speaker at conferences and is considered an expert in assistive technology.
“I have people come up to me now who just want to shake my hand or take a picture with me like I am some personality,” she said. “It’s gratifying to see the impact this is having.”