Resource Centre Gives Kids a Voice
Tablets help them communicate
By Kevin Rollason
Remember what it was like to run home when you were a child, bursting to tell your parents about what happened at school that day? Or how proud you were when you were able to order your own meal at a restaurant?
What if you knew what you wanted to say but couldn't get it out? What if all you could do was point at what you wanted or come up with a system of gestures only your family and closest friends could understand?
That's why the Open Access Resource Centre (OARC) has helped hundreds of children living with special needs during its two decades of existence.
Whether the challenge the child faces is cognitive or physical, OARC has specialists who can work to open the door to communication by using various devices, from older push button technology to the latest iPads.
"It really has been amazing," said Cheryl Lisowski, a mother of three boys, of which two received speech devices from OARC. "They are amazing people there. OARC has really been one of my resources we have come to know and love."
Lisowski's nineyearold Joshua has been using a speech device from the OARC for five years, while sixyearold Isaac is using one as he prepares to enter Grade 1 next month.
Both boys are now using iPads with specialized apps tailored to their needs.
Lisowski said last year Isaac used his device to take part in giving the morning roll call for his kindergarten class.
"He was pressing 'good morning' and he has all the kids' names, with their pictures, on buttons on his iPad. You can put hundreds of icons on the iPad app, from food to mood, to how am I feeling.
"I can't even fathom to see where the technology will take us in future years. This machine wasn't even designed for this purpose. It has opened up their worlds. Before iPads, we didn't think they would be able to communicate outside our four walls."
Not to be taken for granted, Lisowski said both devices and the specialized apps are free for families while OARC figures out which is the best one for the child.
"For OARC to have the ability to test the devices out, and for us not to have to pay an arm and a leg only to find out it doesn't work, is great," she said.
Lori Wiebe, OARC's executive director, said stories such as Lisowski's are the reason the organization is there.
"It's these stories that excite us," she said. "When kids understand the power of communication and how it opens doors to them, it is wonderful."
Wiebe said last year the OARC was helped 479 children and 51 adults (students with special needs are allowed to stay in the school system until age 21).
Wiebe said through the years OARC has kept up with the latest devices to help children communicate, but a single device would cost thousands of dollars, which they would raise through fundraising.
But then, for a few hundred dollars apiece, came the iPad.
"It has been so cool to see that these are not like the other communication devices," Wiebe said. "When one of our kids goes into a classroom with an iPad it is a cool thing, and it's not something that sets them apart from the other students.
"And our funders are very excited, too. They don't have to pay as much as $10,000 for one device. Now it is $1,500 or so for the iPad and apps. That's a huge difference."
Wiebe said when OARC meets with a child and their family, they take a team approach, collaborating with the child's speech therapist as well.
"We then match them with the right device and, if it's an iPad, we match them with the right apps. Then we do a free 10week trial with the device. We sit down with them and try to get the training they need."
Wiebe said one of the best apps is called Proloquo2Go. It has numerous symbols and pictures and can be customized for the child.
"Without the customization, it is just a standard piece of equipment."
Wiebe said the Children's Rehabilitation Foundation, the fundraising arm of the Rehabilitation Centre for Children, has helped families with the cost of buying longterm communication devices for kids in recent years.
"When kids understand they have some power in what they say, it changes how they see themselves.
Penny McMillan, OARC's chairwoman, said when she retired she decided she would use her skills to help organizations she wanted to assist.
"I was approached by one of the other board members. I didn't know about the organization up until then," she said.
"But when you sit at the board table, where you also have parents of children using the service as well as teachers working in the school environment. You learn how important it is, and the difference it makes and will continue to make in the lives of children and adults.
"After all, if you can't communicate, frustration will be part of your daily life."
Marnie Loewen's daughter, Fran, 23, who lives with cerebral palsy, connected with OARC when she was five. Loewen said it is thanks to OARC that her daughter can communicate easily.
"If she doesn't have her computer, the only way for her to communicate is for us to spell letters out loud and she nods yes to the letter she is spelling," Loewen said.
She said Fran began with a pushbutton device that could only record one message, then advanced to more specialized speechgenerating systems that use computers and scanning devices.
"She can independently communicate by typing, choosing message buttons," Loewen said.
"Her computer is mounted on her wheelchair full time. It's a big deal if her computer is out of commission it's part of her daily routine, like getting dressed in the morning."
Cheryl Lisowski said Joshua still has to be cajoled to use the iPad more because, with his family and other people he has interacted with for years, he can communicate with various gestures and movements.
"We tell him he needs to use the iPad so others can communicate with him," she said.
Lisowski said she was thrilled when Joshua took part in a class presentation with another student, using the iPad to 'speak' his part of the presentation.
Looking at how far her two sons have come, Cheryl Lisowski says "OARC has really been one of my resources we have come to know and love."
Lisowski's husband, Mike, said "it gives them a voice they never would have had in days gone by."