In the words of his mum, Joe is like a magnet; he’s fun and people and animals just love being with him. Yet life is a challenge for Joe.
He is a wheelchair user and has several serious health and medical conditions, including severe curvature of the spine, epilepsy and just one lung that only works at a quarter of its capacity. He has a diagnosis of cerebral palsy, which causes difficulty for Joe in using his arms and legs.
Joe doesn’t use speech to communicate. Throughout his childhood and school years, he was limited to communicating through vocalisations, facial expressions and ‘pointing’ with his eyes to real objects or symbols on an E-Tran Frame, which other people presented to him. (An E-Tran Frame is a sheet of stiff, transparent plastic onto which symbols or words can be stuck with Blu-Tack or Velcro.)
Having battled to get a place at a specialist school when he was young, at the age of seventeen, he and his family were told by the local authority that continued funding for education after Joe left school was extremely unlikely. Their perception was that Joe’s progress would be limited because of the challenges that he faced. They simply didn’t see his potential to learn. That is until Sense stepped in.
As the Education Services Manager at Sense College, Rothwell, I met with Joe to help complete his initial assessments.
During the visit, I noted Joe’s ability to use his eyes to communicate. This was when I first thought that he might be able to use specialist assistive technology, which allows ‘eye-pointing’ to make selections on a personal computer. I knew that if I was right, this would allow Joe to express himself, make quick and clear choices and develop his autonomy in a way that wasn’t possible before.
Joe proves his potential
Before Joe started with Sense, I had arranged for an eye-gaze technology assessment for him at Sense College, Rothwell. Joe used a large computer monitor with a flexible frame that was able to be set up for his use, so that his head was in a comfortable position and he would not tire too easily.
Joe worked hard using this system without a break for over two hours, clearly finding the technology highly motivating. In fact, the assessor commented that he’d never seen someone do so well on their first go. The trial result was included in a letter to the local authority, written by Joe with support from his schoolteacher.
In the letter, Joe explained “Recently Jackie took me to visit Sense, where I had an assessment using an Eye Gaze, which enabled me to control the computer with my eyes. It was amazing for me and I could show everyone I can do so much more than just make choices from a few pictures on an eTran Frame. I worked with Angel, who was able to help teach me things. She showed me how I can eye point to the print button myself. I met all the staff from Sense, and students there, too. When I leave school I need Eye Gaze and a teacher who can help me to get better and more independent when using it. I love learning and want to carry on making my own choices for my life.”
The argument that innovative technology could make a real and lasting difference was successful in securing Joe a place on the education programme at Sense College.
Joe successfully paints two pictures using his eyes to control the paintbrush
Now in his second year at Sense College, Joe has been able to gain far more control and autonomy in his life.
He has worked hard with the support of Sense College staff to progress from controlling simple games using eye-gaze technology to using Grid 3 software. It has enabled him to make full sentences, state when he is hungry or thirsty, request what he would like to eat or drink and tell staff if he is in pain.
He is still using the large screen that was originally purchased for him, but because of his progress, Joe is now in the process of fundraising with his family to purchase a smaller mobile system that will fit onto his wheelchair to give him full autonomy at all times.
Joe also has a future goal to be able to use eye-gaze technology to control his environment, especially his lights, fan and TV.