In 1995, Giesbert Nijhuis was touring through Europe with his ska-reggae band when his van tumbled off the road. The accident left Nijhuis paralyzed from the neck down. He was 26 years old.
“I couldn’t move anything except for my head, and only had an eighth of my normal breathing capacity. There was almost no hope of healing or repairing the spinal cord,” says Nijhuis, a professional graphic designer and photographer. “At first I was questioning if I wanted to continue life like this.”
David Niemeijer, a friend of Nijhuis’ since childhood, remembers that dark time well. “His new physical challenges drained the life right out of him.”
The accident affected every part of Nijhuis’ life, including his very livelihood. To edit images on his Mac, he needed to be able to enter key combinations, but the assistive onscreen keyboards available then didn’t allow for that. In his new situation—or his “second life,” as he likes to call it—he was facing serious accessibility issues.
So Niemeijer, who has a degree in agricultural and environmental sciences and was working at a university at the time, created his own assistive keyboard—what would become the Mac app Keystrokes. He soon scaled back his work at the university to focus on founding a software company, AssistiveWare, which released a number of pioneering accessibility tools for the desktop.
And then came the launch of iOS, which changed everything for Niemeijer by untethering assistive software from the computer. In 2009, just a year after the iOS Software Development Kit launched, AssistiveWare released its breakthrough product: Proloquo2Go.
Proloquo2Go gives a voice to those who have difficulty speaking (proloquo is Latin for “to speak out loud”). Paired with an iPhone or iPad, it also made this assistive technology more widely available. “It enables people to start learning to use it much earlier. It used to be that you’d get an expensive machine when you were 7 or 8 years old,” says Niemeijer.
“With an iPad or iPod touch, you can start around 2 or 3 years old, which makes a huge difference, because some kids then can go to regular schools and are not reliant on special education.”
Proloquo2Go presents a variety of simple drawings; tap them to create sentences that the app will read aloud. Instead of providing only a limited number of predetermined sentences and phrases, Proloquo2Go lets you combine words in infinite ways.
“It offers users total communication,” says Niemeijer. “It allows people to not just use utilitarian language, such as asking or answering questions, but also to share stories or emotional anecdotes. It allows them to tell a joke.”
AssistiveWare currently has a half dozen apps available across iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch. Pictello lets users create storybooks using text-to-speech and the photos on their iOS device. Keeble is a highly customizable keyboard app that supports users with motor challenges, low vision, and dyslexia. And News-2-You publishes a weekly newspaper, written with both text and symbols, for beginning readers.
Nijhuis is proud of what Niemeijer has managed to build. “I love having seen David’s works grow from the software he made just for me to the company it is today, serving so many people all over the world.”
The designer continues to influence AssistiveWare’s evolution: He created the company logo and the app icon for Proloquo2Go.
Originally published on the App Store.