Helping Special-Needs Kids With High-Tech Therapy— November 4, 2014
San Francisco-based Presence Learning operates at the nexus of two sizzling industries: telemedicine and online learning. Here’s how it got started.
San Francisco-based Presence Learning (#146 on the 2014 Inc. 5000) operates at the nexus of two sizzling industries: telemedicine and online learning. Clay Whitehead, who shares both founder and CEO titles with Jack Lynch, says the $5.9 million business has ambitions beyond schoolchildren with speech and other disorders: it plans to aid people will disabilities around the planet. The company’s investors include New Markets Venture Partners and Catamount Ventures.
As a child I had dyslexia. In kindergarten or first grade I had to go to a different school to learn to read and to write, and they put a computer in my classroom. A big beige box that booted off a 3X5 floppy. It was pretty clunky, but being able to type rather than write my assignments did it for me.
At Stanford Business School, I met my business partner, Jack. He has a cousin who is on the autism spectrum and non-verbal. We both knew and understood these kids’ needs firsthand, and we both saw the power of technology to help them.
There are 52 special education agencies in California, and I called all 52 of them. One guy called me back. He referred me to two schools. One school said no thank you. The other school said, let’s talk. So we worked collaboratively to put the product together and provide service to that school. We got two other contracts in that first year, and we were off to the races.
We employ fully licensed therapists and clinicians to provide speech therapy, occupational therapy, and counseling to pre-K-through-12 students over our Web platform from the web application development department. We are in 34 states, and this school year we will do about 270,000 sessions. Services are delivered live. Picture it as an interactive videoconference with the child and the therapist–or perhaps a small group of children and a therapist–interacting on our curriculum. They can be doing a game, a drill sheet, a workbook. Depending on each child’s individual goal, we will work with them and their family and their school to choose the best, most relevant, evidence-based means of therapy.
Sometimes people choose us because they are in a rural or other area where these services are hard to find. Or there may not be a specialist in that child’s needs within driving distance. Also, there are a lot of kids these days who are like I was–they absolutely love technology and enjoy receiving therapy online. Then there are kids on the autism spectrum who may have sensory issues and worry about someone touching them. The technology in the web application development and mobile application development provides them with a safe buffer, so they are able to make fantastic progress.
These kids have it all inside of them waiting to be unlocked. When they are able to express themselves, that is the most emotional, powerful moment of change in their lives. We had a kid recently with a very severe speech impediment who was being bullied so much he started telling adults at his school that he was having suicidal thoughts. We worked with the school to double that kid’s therapy. His speech impediment went down and the bullying went away. Now he says those thoughts are gone. We won that kid back.
We often think of disabilities as a niche in our society. But when you start adding up all the people who have autism, stutters, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, lisps, learning disabilities, expressive language disorder, receptive language disorder, deafness, hard of hearing: that is a very large percentage of the population. Thirteen percent of all kids in schools are formally in special education. I would argue there is a much higher percentage who need services.
Our vision started with speech therapy in schools, but it has always been larger. The mission is to serve all people with disabilities around the world. So serving adults and the geriatric population. After all, disabilities don’t stop the minute you leave high school. And internationally: the challenges that families with special-needs face don’t stop at the Atlantic and the Pacific. We see room for a large, meaningful independent company serving the whole global population of people with disabilities.