Don Smith

Toronto, Ontario



These are excerpts from Finding My Voice, a book written by Don Smith (who speaks with AAC) with Jane Field.  There are two excerpts.  The first one is from the forward of the book, and it’s written by Jane Field about Don’s story-telling process.  The second excerpt is written by Don Smith.

One day as Don Smith and I were working on literacy skills, Don pointed to a picture of a horse in a visual dictionary. Knowing little about his childhood at this point in our partnership, I asked Don if he wanted to talk about a horse in Prince Edward Island [where Don grew up]. Don responded “yes.” I asked Don if this was a horse from his childhood and Don indicated the number twelve. He was twelve years old. I asked him if it was a horse that belonged to his family and he spelled out “new”, so I learned that it was a new family horse.

Next Don pointed to the Bliss symbol for “walk” in his communication book on his lap as well as to the symbol for “similar to.” I guessed that he meant “run.” I asked him if he was talking about a race horse and could tell immediately from his facial expression that this was wrong. I asked if the horse was wild and Don indicated this was close. Then I realized he was telling me about a horse that ran away. I asked a series of questions to establish Don’s relationship with the horse (riding it? near it? behind it? in a wagon?) We confirmed that Don was in a wagon and that his sister, Bonnie, about five years old at the time, was there too. We continued.

Was there an adult?

Yes. Father.

Was your father with you in the wagon?


So you were sitting with your sister in the wagon when the horse suddenly started to move?

Don laughed in delight. I had understood the story. He took a pen tied to his chair, which he used as a pointer and dropped it over the side of the chair.

I inferred that he was indicating he had fallen out of the wagon, but was holding onto the reins. How did the horse ever stop?

Don mimed eating. The horse stopped to eat grass.

I wrote Don’s story down, supplying the words that would convey the pictures and emotions of Don’s experience. I read it back to him and we clarified details and word choice until Don felt satisfied with the results. As I read the finished story out loud, Don burst into tears. He was hearing his own life experience articulated in a way he never had before. I knew with certainty that we had to continue this process, however long it took. Don had amazing stories to tell.

I was using a variation of the Language Experience Approach to literacy learning with Don. This method encourages learners to express their stories in their own words and then to learn to read their own stories. But Don didn’t have words to vocalize and his limited knowledge of spelling would confine him to words that just didn’t do justice to the richness of his life. Thus, the language experience method developed into co-authorship with me supplying words and Don approving or rejecting them as we went along.

The book that evolved represents countless hours of working together, at St. Christopher House, at Don’s house, at my apartment, over dinners and lunches and the odd beer or two. We’ve had wonderful times together and I know there will be many more, with many stories yet to come.

Jane Field, October, 2010


 DonSmith_with_sister_350.jpg Don with his sister Bonnie

In 1992, during the time I was at St. Christopher House working on literacy with Jane Field I was introduced to some new technology in the form of a speech generating device that would enable me to speak. This would allow me to have an audible voice and to interact with people in a whole different way.

Fraser Shein, a rehab engineer, called up and told me that there’s some amazing new technology I should go and see. I went to the Adult Adaptive Communication Service (ACCS) where I met Barbara Collier who showed me a Dynavox speech generating device. I was amazed when I first saw this new technology, but still didn’t quite believe I could actually get such a system and make it work for me.

When I was a child I had even dreamed of having just such a gadget. I had designed it myself in my head and now here it was! Three months later I had a Dynavox of my own. I had to apply through the Ontario Assistive Devices Program to lease a device. I had to pay $200 myself, but the program paid the rest. I managed to get the $200 together and embarked on another life-changing journey into new communication methods.

The Dynavox has allowed me to do things like talk on the telephone and chair meetings. I became the co-chair of the Literacy Working Committee at St. Christopher House. The only drawback to this form of communication is that occasionally people get caught up in the technology and are fascinated by the computer mounted on my wheelchair. They fail to notice that I am talking to them. I can be asking for directions to a washroom and instead of replying, “It’s down the hall to your right” or something, they say “Wow! Is that a computer? How does that work? Cool.” And I am left still in doubt as to the location of the washroom. The more people see wheelchair users out and about in their communities, the less they will stare. Similarly, the more people encounter different forms of technology to communicate, the less surprised they will be. I just try to stay patient.

In 1995 I travelled to a conference in Winnipeg called “Beyond Words: The Power of Inclusion” with Jane and Nancy Friday, a staff member from the Literacy Program at St. Chris. Our purpose was to teach people about different ways of communicating. We flew to Winnipeg and that was my first time in an airplane. 


It wasn’t the easiest trip. To start with, the airline personnel were worried about the wet cell battery in my wheelchair and said it must be disconnected and placed in a special container. We thought the airline staff would look after this, but they just told us to do it. They couldn’t even give us a wrench! None of us knew how to disconnect the battery and my attendant, Roberto (who still works with me to this day) almost caused it to explode as he tried. He got two electric shocks, but at last he succeeded. Then I had to be transferred to the airplane seat and my special cushion was placed upside down. Without my wheelchair I didn’t have my Dynavox, since it was hooked up through the power on my chair. I couldn’t tell anyone what was wrong and why I was so uncomfortable. They didn’t seem to notice me slowly disappearing off the seat all the way to Winnipeg!

All in all, though, it was wonderful to have the chance to experience flying and also to have the chance to be in the role of teacher, not just participant or audience member at an event. I was very glad to have the chance to travel and to meet other people from all over the country who were also involved in literacy learning.

Subsequently I enrolled in a three-year college program at Seneca Community College. There I was treated as a college student with great dignity and my reading skills improved there. I began to teach other disabled people to use the Dynavox system at West Park Rehabilitation Centre. This is extremely satisfying for me.

I have also been involved in several projects at Augmentative Communication Community Partnerships Canada, where my friend Barbara Collier is the Executive Director. I contributed to an online training program for legal professionals and another project training assistants for people who have communication difficulties. I have gotten involved in many activities since my arrival in Toronto. I played in a power wheelchair hockey league that met at Bloorview Children’s Hospital regularly and really enjoyed being on a sports team. I won an award for best sportsmanship and another for highest fund raising for the league. I got a computer, which I operate by typing with a stick that has a rubber tip. I can grip the stick and manage to type out one letter at a time in this fashion, just as I do on my Dynavox.


I still have an interest in art and I began to make greeting cards and established my own greeting card company called Bronco Press. I had a colour printer and a software program for making cards long before many people even had computers of their own. My business didn’t really take off, but I enjoyed the enterprise. I also took up drawing and painting again and went for a time to The Creative Spirit Art Centre to get help with this interest. I especially enjoy drawing horses and other animals.


To order Don Smith's book, Finding My Voice, or to inquire about purchasing his notecards or art, please fill in the form below.


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