Bruce Baker’s invention helped many with language disabilities

Bruce Baker

Bruce Baker, inventor of a pioneering system to help those with severe language disabilities to communicate — who brought his expertise and dedication to the students of the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences — died May 7, 2020, at 77.

Katya Hill, a faculty member in the school’s Department of Communication Science and Disorders, was working as a speech-language pathologist in northwestern Pennsylvania when Baker spoke there about his device, which she was already using, and convinced her to come to Pitt for her Ph.D.

Hill points to the documentary made about Baker’s work and the individuals whom he has helped. “Only God Can Hear Me” shows “how speakers have been independent, have a higher quality of life and are participating more in the community” thanks to Baker’s invention, called Minspeak, made by his company, Semantic Compaction Systems.

“It’s an especially robust communications app,” Hill says, which allows users to pair icons representing words with buttons representing a part of speech, from noun and adjective to all the conjugations of verbs, to create sentences.

Baker had the idea for Minspeak while pursuing his Ph.D. and caring for someone with cerebral palsy, Hill said. Watching this person spell out every word in order to communicate inspired Baker to seek out a better method for allowing the reproduction of speech.

Coming to the school after his invention was on the market and successful, Hill says, “Bruce was a generous individual. He looked for people that he felt had talent and provided them with support,” including sponsoring hourly student workers in her laboratory. 

“Bruce also knew individuals that used his device, and that’s what motivated him,” she adds. “I don’t think many manufacturers of products have close relationships with people who use their products.”

His influence on his field of augmentative and alternative communication made him “one of the founding fathers,” she says. In the classroom, “he was challenging. He always had a different twist to things.” She could attend a lecture on the same topic over and over, she recalls, “and I would always learn something new — he always had something different to share, something he would find in the literature.”

Patty Kummick, the school’s executive director of internal and external relations, lauds Baker’s creation of several awards, including the Semantic Compaction Systems Educational Travel Fund, a school-wide fund that supported students and junior faculty travel opportunities to conduct research, attend professional conferences, undertake service programs, study abroad or pursue other educational opportunities.

Baker attended the scholarship reception each year: “He loved the opportunity to engage with the students and learn about their travels and study. He was just a kind soul who loved to help students and see them excel in any way possible.”

He was an adjunct associate professor in two school departments, Rehabilitation Science and Technology (since 1993) and secondarily Communications Science and Disorders, and was still active at his death. He also served on the school’s advisory Board of Visitors.

“His whole life was his work and I think his goal in life was to help other people,” Kummick says. “He believed in the power of education and the power of travel to expand knowledge, and that was truly an opportunity he wanted to make sure the students had.”

— Marty Levine