One otherwise ordinary Monday back in September, Brandon Rummel enjoyed an extraordinary moment of fame—actually, for a whole hour. The 23-year-old guest-hosted “Off the Beatle Path” on KOOP Radio at its Austin, TX studio. Brandon, along with many who know and love him including the show’s creator and host Rush Evans III, will get to relive the excitement when the segment airs again on Monday. Rebroadcasts on the non-profit community station are rare, said Cynthia McFarlin, KOOP’s development coordinator. “This was an exceptional program, so we made an exception.” Part of what makes it so is that Brandon does his announcing through the Tobii Dynavox Compass software on his iPad, setting the mood with a proper and smooth British accent, his favorite voice on the app. He uses the technology to work around speech challenges that his cerebral palsy presents. A related swallowing disorder makes it difficult to form syllables into spoken words.
Leah Rummel says her son is comfortable talking in his own voice with people who know him best. Sometimes, though, others cannot understand him as well as he would like them to. The longer the conversation, the harder it tends to be. “We’ve used all kinds of things over the years” to mediate this, she said. The augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices Brandon used throughout his youth were at best a partial solution, sometimes too heavy to carry around or too taxing when it came to composing novel messages. “He thinks faster than he can type,” Leah Rummel said. “I think sometimes he gets frustrated, but he’ll try every way he can” to communicate. Gesturing is second nature to Brandon and, when he’s really stuck, he’ll spell out his words.
Speech-language pathologist Lesli Bassford, M.S., CCC-SLP, saw such determination when she first met Brandon as a five-year-old in a pediatric rehabilitation setting. They lost touch for several years, then coincidentally reunited when Brandon started high school. While unmistakably the loving boy she always knew, Brandon hated his AAC device, which someone else usually carried for him because of his balance issues. “It was big and it made him stand out, so he quit using it,” Mrs. Bassford said. As she continued seeing him at Creative Therapy Solutions, her private practice, tablets and apps were rising in popularity. Like many of his peers, Brandon wanted an iPad and when the Compass app came out, it presented an excellent answer to his communication dilemma.
The Beatle connection
Brandon often is a man of few words who likes to get to the point fast, Mrs. Bassford said, so the focus of their current sessions is on speaking complete sentences through the technology. Compass is great for Brandon because of its portability but also for the depth and organization of the language on it. He can say a lot while putting in just a little effort. His mom keeps Compass on a different iPad so she and others in Brandon’s life can help him edit its content for changing situations that each day brings. “We’re always adding to it,” she said. “We add things that he wants to say.” They took Compass with them so Brandon could express things easily and clearly to people they met on their 2015 England vacation, complete with a pilgrimage through Liverpool, the Beatles’ birthplace. Brandon has been enamored with all things Beatles since he was eight years old, Leah Rummel said, recalling when she first heard him, in his fullest voice, singing “All You Need Is Love” along with a Beatles CD in the car. As a former keyboardist in a band, it pleased Leah to watch her son’s love of the legendary musical group grow. It gives him a reason to interact with the world. Brandon once got to meet Ringo Starr in person after a concert.
The karma that brought Brandon and “Off the Beatle Path’s” Evans together years later shows how truly small the world can be. Then 19 and at the end of his high school years, Brandon wanted to earn a living and live independently. Family and friends who wanted the same for him knew he needed a little help, so they formed a network to identify contacts, resources and opportunities to support his dream. During one brainstorming session, Mr. Evans’ name came up because Brandon’s mom knows his wife through a mutual friend. They decided to ask whether Brandon could join Mr. Evans for his weekly radio show to observe, listen and assist behind the scenes.
“At first,” Mr. Evans said, “I thought, ‘that’s going to be a commitment. I’m not going to be able to do my show alone.’” Then, a bond formed. “I miss him when he’s not there,” Mr. Evans said. “He enriched my life.” They attend concerts together. Brandon is good at finding facts needed for each weekly broadcast, like the names of record labels or music genres, and often has such information memorized. Mr. Evans, meanwhile, is good at piecing together whatever Brandon says naturally or through body language, like when he makes surfing gestures to bring up the possibility of hosting a show about the Beach Boys someday.
The Beatles, of course, remain at the top of Brandon’s personal playlist and his favorite ice-breaking topic with new conversation partners—many KOOP listeners now among them. When Brandon and Mrs. Bassford programmed the Compass software for the Beatles radio show, he provided the song titles and background for his on-air narrative while she made sure it flowed. Like his mentor Mr. Evans, Brandon is a volunteer at the radio station. Brandon also has jobs delivering the mail at the University of Texas and a durable medical equipment company. He loves payday. “It’s great,” Mrs. Bassford said. “That’s why everyone goes to work, right?”
Home sweet home, community and lifestyle
Brandon lives in Dripping Springs outside Austin on property his family owns. Someone is always there for him. His mother and Uncle Jimmy (Leah Rummel’s brother) have houses on the same land. Others who assist Brandon as he makes his way through daily routines include family friend Mary Buchanan, who also is his job coach and calls herself his “second mama” because she has known him practically his whole life. As Brandon integrates Compass into home and community activities, it’s becoming a tool for his team, no matter how the day is going.
“The aides that take care of him, they think it’s really handy,” said Brandon’s housemate Nathan VanNostrand, 22. Otherwise it looks good to me.
“One of the things we’re working on,” Leah Rummel said, “is communicating with us when something’s not right.”
The success Brandon is enjoying in his transition to adult life has a lot to do with his caring support network, affectionately called “The Cavern Club” like the Liverpool, England nightclub where the Beatles played before they were famous and long before Brandon’s time. The network meets quarterly to help Brandon solve problems, make plans and turn dreams into reality. He gives them an update, using Compass to convey details about his jobs, living situation and what he does for fun. Rarely do he and Nathan miss watching a TV music awards show together. Brandon is active in the local We Are the Chorus music program for adults with disabilities, goes horseback riding on Wednesdays and reserves Fridays for The Dripping Springs Friendship Club, a social group his mom started for adults with special needs.
“You usually don’t hear of people living on their own that have as many needs as Brandon does, but he made it work,” Mrs. Bassford said. Of all his great resources, his mother’s unwavering love and knack for making things happen may be the finest. Check out The Brandon and Leah Blog and this video for first-person accounts of their experiences.
We’re glad we took Leah Rummel up on her suggestion to contact Brandon’s older brother Patrick Bradshaw in Colorado Springs for this story. Though 12 years and hundreds of miles apart, the guys are very close. The whole family takes pride in memories of the summer Patrick taught Brandon, who then used a wheelchair, to walk on his own at about the age of four. They were touched by the toast Brandon gave using Compass at Patrick’s wedding rehearsal dinner. At the same time, Patrick appreciates what the technology means for his brother day to day.
“It’s cool to see someone who can’t really speak get their thoughts out,” he said. “It’s too easy to ask yes or no. The device is cool because it lets you get more involved than that.”
Case in point: Brandon magnified the sentiment of his wedding toast by ending it on a Beatle-esque note.
“And remember, all you need is love!” he said.
“Off the Beatle Path” with Brandon Rummel as guest host re-airs at 12 noon Central Time Monday. December 12 on KOOP 91.7 FM.