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Communicating With the Help of Assistive Technology

Special 5 By Emma Hatfield Sidden

Exceptional Children Assistive Technology Coordinator

Winston Salem/Forsyth County Schools

MAY 28, 2020 – The learning continues at home for Isabella Dallalis, a student at The Special Children’s School.

Isabella is 6 years old and is in Ms. Cheryl Whitaker’s class where she is learning so many great things. In order to access her environment and communicate with others, Isabella uses a variety of modes of communication.

One of those modes is through assistive technology. Isabella communicates using an assistive technology device equipped with an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) application. The device automatically scans through categories and voices aloud the many different pictures and words within the application.

Isabella uses a switch that is attached to the device, and once the device scans to the word of her choice, she selects it using the switch. This is called switch scanning.

Isabella works so hard using this device. Her speech-language pathologist, Edie McBurney, knows the importance of ensuring that Isabella has a voice, and Ms. McBurney works consistently with Isabella and the school staff to make sure she has the opportunity to be successful.

Isabella loves to talk to her friends, answer and ask questions, and comment on all of the happenings within her classroom! 

Isabella also uses other means to communicate that are considered “no tech” because it requires no technology. This is accomplished through an eye gaze frame. To ensure continuity of learning, many of the same pictures, called universal core vocabulary, that Isabella uses on her AAC device are printed out and attached to the eye gaze frame.

Special 2 Isabella must rely on a partner to scan through the icons, and she indicates her choices using vocalizations, head movements, facial features, functional sign language, and gestures. This is called partner-assisted scanning.

Both methods give Isabella the means to successfully communicate and work well for her depending on the situation or activity. It’s hard to use a high-tech device when you’re having water play at school or home! The point is that Isabella has the means to communicate at all times and in all places that a variety of people can use with her. 

One of Isabella’s favorite activities at school is writing. Sheri Grubbs, one of the teacher assistants in Isabella’s classroom, plays an imperative role in making sure that Isabella fully participates in all classroom activities.  Isabella has physical limitations that make it difficult for her to use traditional paper and pencil to write down her own thoughts. However, this does not limit Isabella from writing.

Isabella uses an adapted pencil made by Mrs. Grubbs and one was given to Isabella’s family to use during school closure. This adapted pencil is made with a PVC pipe frame so it is sturdy and yet still allows for both users to see each other. It also gives Isabella full access to each letter of the alphabet. The alphabet is separated every 4th-5th letter onto five different colored squares and placed on the PVC pipe frame.

Special 77 partner will first scan through each colored square until Isabella indicates which color she wants. From there, the partner will scan through each letter on the chosen square until Isabella makes a letter choice. Since Isabella’s writing skills are emergent, it’s imperative that she is given access to all letters of the alphabet so she can experiment and explore all letters and sounds.

Isabella loves to write about favorite topics. One of her most preferred writing topics is her family which includes her mom, dad, and baby sister.

When distance learning began in March, Isabella’s parents, Sabrina and Chris Dallalis kept up the momentum with learning at home with the help of her teachers. Via Microsoft Teams, Isabella’s school team virtually meets with Mr. and Mrs. Dallalis and Isabella to work on a variety of skills.

Isabella also has related services. So she meets virtually with her Occupational Therapist Beth Nelson, Physical Therapist James Every, and Speech-Language Pathologist Edie McBurney as well.

Discussing home learning, Mr. Dallalis said, “Isabella is really excited to do school work, and it’s been really hard for her not to go to school. She’s not only maintaining the skills she’s learned while in school, but she’s also growing in her skill set.” 

Special 6 During a virtual writing lesson, Mrs. Grubbs demonstrated how to use the adapted pencil with Isabella’s home team. Isabella chose to write about her family. She signed the word for “mom” and then chose the letter “m”. As she went on, Isabella also reached out and touched her dad’s face while choosing the letter “d”.

All along the way, her parents and teachers encourage Isabella to keep up the writing while making the connections between the writing topic and the letters she chose. Isabella loves writing and it’s amazing to watch her writing grow, both at school and at home.

Mr. Dallalis commented on how supportive the school team has been during this school closure.

“Isabella meets with her teachers and teachers assistants every week through Microsoft teams,” he said.

“Isabella is video chatting with teachers and they see her actually performing work and give feedback where she can improve.”

“We are really appreciative of all the hard work her teachers and therapists have put in, and it’s made it easier for us to implement the work at home. For example, we didn’t have Velcro to attach the pictures to the eye gaze frame. Within a day, her occupational therapist, Beth Nelson, sent it to us. She gets so happy to see her teachers, and it’s been a positive experience for everyone.”  

Thanks to the collaborative work between Isabella’s school and home teams, Isabella can continue to communicate, learn, work on skills, and achieve progress on goals even during this unprecedented time of stay-at-home learning.

Special 3 Way to go, Isabella!

For more information about using universal core vocabulary, adapted pencils, assistive technology, augmentative communication, and academic strategies for students with complex learning needs, go to Project Core.