January 2008 - Don Johnston is the founder and CEO of Don Johnston Incorporated, based in Volo, IL. In 1980, he founded his company based on a personal desire to deliver assistive technologies and innovative instructional programs to improve the core literacy skills of students with special needs. Don, a non-traditional learner, grew up in the 50’s and struggled with reading concepts until an inspiring teacher took notice of his learning behaviors and taught him to think and learn in different ways. Today, his company offers a variety of technologies, resources and instructional materials to support a wide range of struggling students and students with disabilities.
Don is known as a visionary and pioneer in the field of special education and a leader in providing intervention solutions to schools and districts across the United States, UK and Canada. His company also specializes in Universal Design for Learning (UDL) professional development workshops and hosts the annual TRLD (Technology, Reading, & Learning Diversity) conference, held January 24-26th, 2008 in San Francisco, CA. Don holds a Bachelors Degree in Psychology from Kent State University and a Masters Degree from George Williams College. He is an avid photographer of history and nature and has a collection of educational images. As a recognized leader in the field of assistive technology, we asked Don about the changes and challenges he sees going forward in education.
1. Don, what motivated you to start your company?
I struggled in school as a learner. I started my company to give other struggling learners a chance to be successful. If my products can support learners until they are successful on their own, then I’ve accomplished what I’ve set out to do.
In 2006, I wrote my auto-biography called Building Wings, How I Made it Through School, to share my story with other struggling readers. We’ve received hundreds of letters from these kids who are now taking charge of their learning success. These letters from students are one of my greatest joys!
2. What was your first product?
Our first product was the Audio Scan; a computer device that provided non-verbal students and those with multiple handicaps a resource to help them communicate. For the first time, many of these students could speak in complete sentences using this device that spoke in different audio prompts selected by switch technology. I was very proud of that product!
3. How many products does your company manufacture today?
We have our best-selling reading and writing tools: Co:Writer®, Write:Outloud®, Read:OutLoud® and Draft:Builder®, sold as stand-alone programs and in a network version called the SOLO® Literacy Suite and Writing Coach. We also publish our Start-to-Finish® paperback, audio and computer books that are very popular for students who read below grade level. We have two great phonics programs for early learners, SIMON SIO™, built in collaboration with Ted Hasselbring at Vanderbilt University and WordMaker® based on Dr. Patricia Cunningham’s Four-Blocks Model. In addition, we offer a variety of third-party software programs and portable devices.
4. Which student disabilities do your products and services support?
Our programs support a variety of students with special needs, learning difficulties in reading and writing skills and those who have physical disabilities. These disabilities include auditory support, autism, learning behaviors, dyslexia, visual processing, cognitive and organization disabilities.
5. Are your products sold worldwide?
Yes, in the US, UK, Canada and Australia.
6. Do you have to market your products differently in the U.S. than in other countries?
Not so much, but we do offer both British and English grammar when we develop teaching materials.
7. Is the market different today then it was five years ago?
Yes, we definitely see transition and shifts occurring in education. The needs of struggling learners and those with special needs are greater than ever, but our school administrators are wrestling with how to best support them. Educators have tremendous difficulty focusing on the fundamental issues of these students’ needs due to a lack of funding and training. This is due to the actions of our current Administration and the political agendas we have seen for several years. This has not helped the learners who could really use our products.
Competition has also changed. Most innovation has come from small companies especially in education. As a small company focused on innovation, we have to compete now with really large conglomerates. These companies can put so much more money into their marketing and sales teams.
8. Are attitudes about these technologies different today then they were 5 years ago?
Yes, absolutely! Technology has really transformed the way that we work and play. Attitudes have also transformed around technology. We are more comfortable and more aware of how it can help all kinds of learners and kids are especially leading the charge for using technology. We see this in every walk of life today!
9. Are consumers better educated about your products then they were five years ago?
Yes. Students and families are major advocates for our programs in schools. They are more involved in understanding the laws and working with teachers to get the tools and technologies their kids need to be successful. We see students who use technologies at home advocate for these tools and resources to be available in their schools. This is a very good sign that students are advocating for what they need!
10. What is the biggest challenge facing you, as a CEO, in leading your company?
Extensive research over the years has demonstrated to us that lots of kids and adults think and learn in different ways. I have always believed this because of my own learning difficulties and have strived to create products and services that support different learning styles. This is still our main challenge today – to develop the right tools for these learners. Every day, we ask ourselves what is in the best interest of these students? How can we maintain our company as a small organization and keep the innovation flourishing around technology? How can we make our tools user friendly for teachers and students? How can we provide the support that teachers need to integrate these tools in the everyday classroom?
11. Is there an area in education that Don Johnston would like to move into?
Sure… we know what works for special needs kids will work for all kids! We are moving toward providing our educational tools for the struggling student who sits in the mainstream classroom, like the slow reader or ESL learner. We see our products being very valuable for special needs students who are being included in general education learning. We also see a lot of interest in our products for remediation, extended learning, adult learning, corrections and workforce readiness. In fact, our Write:OutLoud program is a perfect product for adults who did not get the writing instruction and skills needed to for literacy mastery. We also want to continue our mission to empower students to be their own self advocates for learning success based on their individual learning styles and technology preferences.
12. In your opinion why do people who can benefit from programs, like yours, have such a hard time finding them?
They largely depend on the school system to help them get the tools they need. If a school system is not adept in understanding what technology is out there and the family is not aware, then it’s difficult for students to find out about our products. It really takes a strong leader and teacher champion at every level to implement technologies into the education system.
13. What are some of the greatest challenges your company faces to address the needs of the segment of the disability community your products benefit?
The lack of fair funding by the federal government to support these students and the educators who serve them
To keep building creativity and ingenuity into our technologies based on rapid research and the swiftness of the Internet era
Understanding what initiatives are coming down from Federal and State government to serve their own political agendas and intiatives
14. Where does most of your R&D money come from?
That’s an easy question! The sale of our products!
15. What can all levels of government do to assist manufacturers of AT products increase your sales?
Level the playing field between the small innovative companies and large conglomerates
Spotlight the positive changes in education
Revere the teaching profession
Champion change in schools to meet the new information age
Equip teachers with improved knowledge of how to be more creative in delivering multiple learning approaches to support differentiated learners
Extend time in the school day to provide for more literacy skill practice
Empower teachers to use technologies to make a real difference for these kids
Final Comment from Don:
Thank you, John Williams , for all you have done to support children and adults with special needs. It is your voice that has brought much awareness to help these individuals and the industry appreciates your dedication and contributions to this lifelong mission.