Special Education Technology Gives Student a Voice

When Isaiah Erb-White started at one of the Watson Institute’s special education schools in 2013, his ability to speak or move independently was extremely limited due to his multiple disabilities and Isaiah also did not possess special education technology that could help him achieve these goals.

Isaiah’s multiple disabilities greatly impacted his ability to communicate. Initially, he had to communicate through eye contact, nodding his head for “yes” and shaking his head for “no”, and also using his hands to indicate an answer. Questions had to be phrased very simply so they could be answered in this way. Encouraging Isaiah to communicate in this was was a long process as he also struggled with anxiety and had yet to build a relationship with his classroom staff.

“After about 3 to 6 months, he was able to trust us and we were able to learn how to communicate with him in the way he was taught when he initially came to us.” shared Samantha Sekanick, his special education teacher at the Watson Institute’s Education Center Sewickley.

Testing Communication Devices

Over the past four years, Isaiah’s special education teachers and speech therapists have worked with him to increase his independence and get to a place where he can communicate more efficiently and effectively. Emily Furar, a speech therapist at Watson, worked with Isaiah for months testing out various communication devices to determine which ones worked best for him.

Emily shared how important it was for the process to be collaborative with Isaiah, “my idea of what’s ‘best’ as a clinician doesn’t always necessarily match up to the student’s idea or perception of what works for them, so finding that area where those two ideas can come together is really where you’re going to see the most success.”

The Tobii communication device stood out to Isaiah and his team because not only was it able to be operated by eye gaze, it could also be operated by using switch-scanning. Switches operate like a push button and are used to allow students with physical limitations to activate assistive technology devices. Using the switch, Isaiah was able to select options on the Tobii screen and therefore communicate more efficiently and effectively.

“Isaiah had some reservations at first, but he was game to try it and I’d always give him the option to use or go back to the switch if he was feeling tired that day and couldn’t use the eye gaze.” said Emily Furar.

Tobii Communication Device and Special Education

Recently, Isaiah was able to get his own Tobii Dynavox communication device. The Tobii looks like a tablet and connects to his wheelchair so that it sits right at his eye level. Each screen on the device has pictures of various topics of communication such as school, leisure, home, help, feelings, and chat. Each screen also has a “yes” and “no” option so Isaiah can answer questions easily.

Ashley Craver, Isaiah’s current speech therapist, works with him each week at school to increase his ability to communicate using various tools, including the Tobii.

“The Tobii uses eye reading technology to enable Isaiah to select choices on the screen. He just has to focus on one of the pictures for just about a second and that choice will be read aloud by the tablet. We were able to completely customize the tablet options and eye gaze timer for Isaiah.” said Ashley.

The Tobii communication device has opened up a whole new world for Isaiah. Previously, he was only able to answer simple yes or no questions. Now, Isaiah can communicate in more complex ways, expressing himself and his needs, and can even select music to listen to and tell jokes. Isaiah is a huge Star Wars fan and with the help of his special education technology device, he tells Star Wars jokes to his classmates and classroom staff!

At the Watson Institute’s special education schools, we make it our mission to help our students achieve their fullest potential in all aspects of their lives. Our staff work hand in hand to ensure our students are able to meet their developmental goals as outlined in their Individualized Education Plan (IEP). The progress Isaiah has made during his time at the Education Center Sewickley is remarkable. He has achieved many developmental goals and through his hard work and using assistive communication devices, he’s now able to express himself in ways that were not possible previously.

Check back soon as we share more about Isaiah’s use of special education technology and how adapted devices have helped him achieve developmental goals and increase his independence.