The time is 9:15am and the children of class 1b at the Ottilienschule primary school in Fulda, Germany are sitting in a circle and presenting their homework. Seven-year-old Mara Hess sits with them. The topic of the conversation is the letter “s”. All students had the homework of cutting out pictures of items that start with “S” and gluing them onto a piece of paper. They used pictures from catalogues, advertisements and magazines. On Mara’s piece of paper there is a sock and above it is written, “S is for sock”.
E is for eye control
Mara has been attending school for the last three months. She is learning to read and write just like her schoolmates. The difference, however, is that Mara writes using her eyes. Due to cerebral palsy her motor skills are impaired and she cannot hold a pen in her hand or use her voice to speak.
In order to communicate she uses a communication device, a Tobii C12 with an eye control module. The device allows her to speak with a synthesized voice. Additionally, the C12 helps her learn to write, something that works very well thanks to LiterAACy. LiterAACy is a program on her C12 that supports her in her writing skills and is based on symbols that are placed in alphabetical order. When Mara looks at the letter “S” the program suggests, for example, the word sock.
Now, it is Mara’s turn – “S is for sock” – correct! One of her classmates helps present her homework. Mara is also supported by a teacher for children with special needs who works to help integrate students into the classroom environment. She sits next to Mara in the morning circle.
At Mara’s school, inclusion is not only an idea, but also a practice. Words, sentences and short texts written by Mara can be printed directly in the classroom, so that she can have comparable results to her classmates. “Mara is very ambitious,” says her teacher and recalls, “Once, when Mara made a spelling mistake, she refused to print the results. But when her refusal did not help, she navigated quickly through the program and deleted the sentences, so that we were not able to print them. This is remarkable – not only the result, but also her approach. It was very smart how she got her point across.”
A device for many needs
The time is now 3pm. School is over and Mara is at home sitting on the soft carpet in the living room. Her Tobii device is fixed to a table and is on the floor in front of her. Mara is playing memory while her mother explains, “When her enrollment in school was coming closer we decided that she needed a communication device that would fit her cognitive needs.”
After Mara’s parents made the decision to send her to an integrative school, the priority became finding a system that enables Mara to participate actively in the class.
“Now, the device has become her most important companion,” says Mrs. Hess. “We cannot imagine a life without Tobii.”
Learning through leisure
When the 7 year old girl is not doing homework for school, she is using the eye control device in order to have fun. She navigates through all the programs and examines what she can discover. One of her favorites is the program “Sono Primo”, which is a vocabulary software made for young users. It works with “living scenes” surrounded by topic relevant vocabulary. Mara is playing “cleaning”. She decides which swamp the small dog on the screen should jump into and afterwards, she washes him in the bathtub until he is clean again. While her mother is talking with us, we sometimes hear Mara giggle and then the background noise changes. We see that she has had enough of cleaning the dog and is now observing a scene with food. She can choose a meal that the person sitting on the table (virtually) can eat afterwards. “Yummm yumm yumm!” says the Tobii C12 while the person is eating the salad. Mara giggles again.
Of all development areas for a child, playing is one of the most important. When children play, they get access to the world and learn to interact actively. And while children are learning a language, having fun should be considered just as important. Mara demonstrates this well.
While developing her reading and writing skills and getting better at navigating her device, she stays very well entertained. M – is for motivation, and also for Mara – A perfect example of how to have fun while communicating!