Ryan and Jody Farris started urTalker
in 2011 and released their first app in 2012.
urTalk is a business "focused on apps that support communication for nonverbal individuals," says Ryan. The company's website
gives this description of its first app: "urTalker is a very affordable augmentative alternative communication device (aac) that works on iTouch, iPad, and iPhone devices. urTalker and urTalker Pro provide the disability community aac device options to expensive devices and allow anyone to configure the product any way they need. urTalker and urTalker Pro come with over 200 images pre-loaded and the ability to add as many as needed. urTalker is a great assistive technology device for children and adults with speech issues including Autism, CP or cerebral palsy, down syndrome, and other developmental disabilities."
Ryan and Jody's son Nolan, eleven years old at the time of this interview in July 2012, has autism and cerebral palsy, and is nonverbal and legally blind. "The day he was born, we were informed it was likely he would have challenges," Ryan recalls. "Nolan was born three months premature due to a blood clot in his mother's placenta. He was born underweight at one pound one ounce, and spent the next year in ICU, and the following three years on a trach. He still to this day is g-tube fed." The Farris's also have two daughters, ages seven and two.
urTalker was inspired by "our struggle with the school and state to get Nolan a communication device," says Ryan. "We spent years trying to get approvals and then when we tried to buy it direct realized the price was $6,000. During that time, we noticed Nolan using his mom's iPhone to play music without any assistance. We figured if he could find and play music, he could find and communicate thoughts. From that we started the two-year process of developing this app and business. We leveraged friends and family for knowledge and resources, and then financed all the work through personal funds -- and actually got it completed before he received a school-funded device."
Ryan would say the business is a success "in the sense that we got the app launch, but no in the sense that we haven't begun to reach the population in the way we want. We would love this to become a business that sustains the family, but we are pricing the app in a way that other families can afford it. We don't anticipate recovering our startup costs for some time, much less turning a profit. All proceeds are going to future development regardless." In the meantime, Ryan works as president of a marketing technology company, EarthIntegrate,
"which obviously provides the foundation and background for urTalker."
Pros and Cons:
The best thing about having this business, says Ryan, is "being able to work on something that simultaneously helps our son and others like him. Our full-time jobs don't help any special-needs community, and while paying the bills, they don't improve or help him progress to the next level. This business gives us the satisfaction of both helping him and helping someone else like him communicate better." The hardest thing about the business? "Working through issues and expectations. There are bugs and issues and things that you overlook and can't easily accommodate. Because there are so many apps out there it seems the perception is for it to already be perfect and that there must be plenty of money coming in to make any and all updates/changes. The reality is, we are just a small team with limited funds and resources. We rely on feedback to make the improvements, but they take time."
Next up for urTalker is a Spanish version, says Ryan. The company would also like to solve the problem of image licenses. "We are working with some professors to try and create universal images and make them free to the world. This has been a real issue for us as parents and a business. We developed a great app that allows for picture-exchange communication, but all the images available for communication currently are licensed and property of various companies. That is like a license on the alphabet, as far as we are concerned. These kids and adults need free access to communicate, and these images should be universal and free so they work worldwide. Our longterm goal is to make that happen and then enhance our app with those images."
To other parents seeking to start a special-needs business, Ryan advises, “No question, it is a challenge, but absolutely the most rewarding thing we have done for our son and for our family. While it doesn't pay the bills, it unites the family and give us all something to be very proud of."
More Inspiration and Advice from Ryan Farris:
How did your son's diagnosis affect your family?
After spending the first year of his life in hospitals, Nolan was able to go home, where he learned to sit, stand, walk, play, and become more independent, thanks to Early Childhood Intervention
and home healthcare services. Nolan received in-home therapies five or six days a week. At age three, the boy who wasn't supposed to walk, was walking. At the age of four, Nolan had managed to get his trach out and breathe on his own, but Colorado's altitude was still not the ideal environment for his continued health. We took a job in Texas, relocating the family to sea-level, where Nolan is doing well with his lungs and focused on social and educational development. He's learning at a faster pace each year, particularly with the addition of assistive communication technology.
What feedback have you received from users about your app?
We have had some great feedback from a wide range of parents and educators with great ideas for new features. We get some great praise for not charging for our images and for keeping the price affordable.
What does your son think about your business?
Not sure Nolan is aware that the business exists, but he loves his app and being able to communicate. I will never forget the first time he used it, he scrolled and scrolled till he found a toy he was missing. We immediately found it, and the smile on his face was priceless. We knew right then that we had succeeded.
What advice would you give to other parents about raising a child with special needs?
Be an advocate, be their voice. We love our children and we know them, but others may not. Be their voice so others not only get to know them, but can be a part of the process for their growth. We do a lot of advocating
from government to organizations and find a lot of parents go with what they are told or live with what they are given. Question it, challenge it, and if you don't like it don't accept it. Parents of special-needs children do not have to settle. Fight for what you want and never settle.
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