Finding her voice: Device lets Hilton Head third-grader speak

tbarton@beaufortgazette.comJune 4, 2013 

New technology has opened a new world for a disabled Hilton Head Island third-grader.

By all accounts, 10-year-old Hannah Reed has a wonderful mind.

But although she can hear, she cannot speak or write.

Hannah, who attends Hilton Head Island Elementary School for the Creative Arts, has athetoid cerebral palsy, which causes involuntary movements and interferes with her speech. She developed the neurological disorder after complications at birth obstructed oxygen and blood flow to her brain, impairing the development of motor skills.

Her parents knew she was bright. Hannah reached many key developmental milestones -- such as learning to crawl. She also responded well to lessons aimed at increasing her mobility, problem-solving skills and strength.

But her interaction with the world around her was severely limited.

Sometimes, Hannah could point to objects or pictures to communicate her thoughts. And her parents learned to read her body language to respond to yes-or-no questions.

"It was very frustrating knowing how much she understood but could not communicate," said her mother, Stephanie Reed, who spent years searching for a device that would give her daughter a voice.

"The hurdle was figuring out, 'How do we find a way to effectively access that knowledge?'" Reed said. "Was she going to be able to touch a screen or flip a switch or use a clicker kind of thing?"

Hannah does not have enough control of her hands or limbs to use those devices.

So now her eyes do the talking.

"She was most consistent with where she was looking," her mother said.

A Beaufort County School District evaluation of equipment that might help Hannah confirmed her mother's hunch. A device with an eye tracker -- the Tobii CEye -- gave Hannah a voice.

Its software allows Hannah to use her eyes to select letters and words that appear on a screen, and the computer then says them aloud.

A red dot follows her eyes across a screen, using a sensor built into the bottom of a touch-screen monitor mounted to her wheelchair. Once she fixes on a word she wants to speak, she stares at it for a few seconds to signal the computer she's made her choice.

The district purchased one of the devices for classroom use while Medicaid furnished one for home use.

She has had the device for two and a half years. Reed said Hannah is on grade level in most subjects, though she struggles some with math. Last spring, she became the first student in South Carolina to use the device to take the Palmetto Assessment of State Standards tests.

She took the exam for the second time, just like her classmates, last month.

"It has changed her world by opening up the world of communication for her," Reed said. "It has changed her life dramatically to be able to work in the classroom. ... She's able to participate in class more and give responses to her teachers, who have been amazingly patient with her as she has adjusted to using the device."

Third-grade reading teacher Emily Jeffords said teachers this year have seen "an explosion" of knowledge from Hannah.

"She's learned the device quickly, using more advanced words and page settings that have allowed her to expand her vocabulary," Jeffords said.

Kathy Paul, a special-education assistant who helps Hannah use the device throughout the school day, said it has been rewarding to see her interact with students, who line up to have lunch with her and play with her indoors at recess.

"Seeing her communicate more with her peers was very exciting," Paul said. "At first, it was just to get her needs and wants across. Now she's using it conversationally with her friends. ... And they're all excited to talk to her, as well, and find out what her favorite things are and talk about her favorite TV shows. They address her as a peer."

And what is her favorite show?

The red dot on her screen follows her eyes to the letter "F." A new page pops up. Her eyes move to the word "full." She stares at the word and the computer reads the word aloud.

Her eyes move back to the keyboard, and she stares at the letter "H" and then the word "house."

"She loves her some 'Jesse,'" her mother said of the John Stamos character on the TV show "Full House."

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