Karen Owens - We Speak PODD

Written by
Whitney Bailey
Written by
Whitney Bailey

Karen Owens has six children, four of whom have complex communication needs (CCN). She shares her children’s home school education journey on social media (We Speak PODD) to be a resource for others with similar needs. Karen goes more in depth about her experiences in her interview with AbleThrive below.

the Owens Family

What is PODD? 

PODD is a communication system, developed by Gayle Porter in Australia, for individuals with no speech or limited speech.  PODD stands for Pragmatic Organized Dynamic Display. Pragmatic referring to the way the words are organized in the system.  By organizing my pragmatics it offers a way for an individual with complex communication needs (CCN) the ability to say what ever they want but with a low cognitive load required. Dynamic Display means that the pages are constantly flipping either in a book or on a high tech device.  PODD is one of the only systems that allows for multiple ways of access. For example for individuals with very complex bodies and vision it offers a lite tech book that can be scanned by a partner. It also offers high tech versions such as eye gaze and also direct access, meaning the user can simply touch the symbol on either a book or speech output device such as an iPad.  This is a robust system, which means that it offers the user many many many words. In Gayle Porter’s words, PODD allows for autonomous communication, “being all to say what I want to say, to whoever I want to say it to, whenever I want to say it.”

homeschool lesson

What’s your process in developing a curriculum for each of your children?

My curriculum is based off the four block learning mythology which is based off the work of Karen Erickson and David Koppenhaver at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I take their basic model and make it my own, so it works with my children.  We are dedicated to expose our children to a robust education which means a ton of adaptations. We do very similar classwork that typical kids are doing in school such as book reports, and biographies. In fact last year we read Where the Red Fern Grows, Hatchet, and Charlotte’s Web.  We did research and wrote reports on each book all in an adaptive way. We also believe that everyone can be taught to read and write. Because of this, everything we do in school, no matter what subject, we also include that literacy piece. The kids all use alternative pencils, a term developed by Gretchen Haunser.  We use many different alphabet boards and tools that allow the kids to write with a letter, sometimes just scribbling and writing random letters that we then attempt to put meaning to but also are beginning to write some first letter sounds of relevant words to our write topic.

Siah doing history lesson

I’ve seen where you are starting to do seminars, etc. to educate the public, can you tell me more about that?

Yes! So far I have launched to eWorkshops.  The first is on “Teaching Yes/NO body movements for individuals with Complex Needs' ' and the most current one is titled: “Beginning AAC and How to Keep Going”. Each eWorkshop is a downloadable PDF that not also teaches all many of the techniques we use in our family but it also includes videos that put the topics in real life situations.  I am writing these workshops, not from a place and actually “teaching,” as I do not have any credentials. But I write from the voice of a mother with a huge passion for teaching the most complex individuals. You will not find “data'' and technical jargon in these eWorkshops, they are a launching pad for both professionals and parents to get that fire burning, so they can either watch the vision that communication and literacy are for everyone for the first time, or maybe they just need a refresher to remind them why they do what they do!  These eWorkshops are a huge chunk of my heart and soul on paper. What/how we teach is working — really well, and I’m just so honored to share our knowledge and methods with others.

jaden holding podd book

Have you ever tried the public school system for your children? If so, How was that experience?

Yes! I have six children and all but one has been in public school at some point in time.  They had a wonderful experience in a very inclusive environment. But I was getting so frustrated because even though they were in school they were not actually being taught the things that really matter — communication and literacy! I would never place blame on the schools, it’s the educational system that fails kids like mine.  I’m not looking for glorified babysitting, My kids have potential and I need that potential pulled out. The public school, due to state regulations, required data collection, lack of education to teachers on exactly how to teach an individual with CCN and also lack of funding just made the public school a really bad fit for my kids.  I never wanted to homeschool, but I felt I had no choice. My conscious versus my kid's education — I chose them and will continue to unless they tell me otherwise.

Karen and harper using PODD to communicate about lettuce

What made you want to share your journey through social media? Did you expect it to take off as it has?

We first started on social media in 2009 after the death of our first son Gavin. During that season it was just a way to find connections with others who have walked a similar path.  But 6 years ago, after searching and searching for videos and information on how to teach kids with CCN how to communicate I ended up empty. It was that very moment that I decided that If the information wasn’t out, then I would make sure it would be for future learners.  We started on social media for ourselves, to document our journey, but then people saw the possibilities and started to get excited. It very quickly spread all over the world! I can’t even begin to tell you how honored and hurled I am when I ready my weekly emails from both parents and professionals thanking our family for doing what we do best - speaking PODD!

How important is it for you that your children have access to quality education?

It’s the most important ever! Our kids are at such high risk for neglect and abuse.  They MUST be taught to communicate and write so that they are also to self-advocate and report.  But besides that, they are humans, and the human brain craves education. If a brain does not receive the stimulation it will shut down.  Our kids deserve a robust and age respectful education. They deserve to be exposed to literature, Chemistry, biology and also to difficult topics such as racism and poverty and war and even world pandemics. 

angela holding podd book in store

Have you experienced any negativity when sharing your PODD journey on social media? If so, how did you handle it?

Haters gonna hate! Yes, I do occasionally get negative feedback.  I’ve learned two things over the past 10 years. One, hurt people hurt people.  Two, social media takes away the face to face filter and people end up saying things with disregard of how we make interpret their words.  They forget that I’m just a human with my own struggles. I’m learning to shake it off. But I’ll admit it impacts me more than it should!

What are some future goals you have for your children?

I just talked to my husband last night about this very topic.  My personal goals for my children are total autonomy. Take note that I say autonomy, not independence.  There is a big difference. I want to put the control in their hands and in order to do that they need to be able to communicate and write to the best of their ability.  I FULLY believe that one day my children will stand in front of a crown and tell their own story in what ever capacity they choose or are able to do so. We believe the sky is the limit.  They each have purpose and potential and Adam and I are just so darn lucky to walk beside them and support them to be the best versions of themselves!

Thanks to Karen for this awesome interview! Be sure to share it with others who could benefit from Karen’s resources.

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