Disabled Youths Learn to Use Devices That Help Them Speak With
by Jessie Parker, Baltimore Sun, August 2, 2004
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Zachary Bryant of Hampstead, attending summer camp is about more
than having fun. He is learning to master a device that helps
him do something most children take for granted: communicate.
When Zachary was about 8 months old and hadn't yet sat up or
rolled over, his parents realized something was wrong.
"You could tell he focused on things; he laughed appropriately.
Intelligence-wise I knew he was in there," said Danya Bryant,
"He just didn't develop. ... He was 8 months old and wasn't
really doing anything new."
Zachary was found to have athetoid cerebral palsy. His muscle
control is limited, and he is unable to talk or walk on his own.
"He's physically unable to do anything for himself, so I have to
feed him," said Danya Bryant.
"He can get around in his power wheelchair as long as it's an
accessible environment, which not all environments are."
To communicate, Zachary uses a Pathfinder, which is about the
size of a laptop computer and attaches to his wheelchair. It
encodes about 5,000 words, categorized in logical groups, such
as places, people and food.
The device uses symbols to represent words that a text-to-speech
synthesizer pronounces. Users can spell out less common words
and can use the same system to write, which Zachary does in
Some children use such tools when dealing with people unfamiliar
with their speech. Others, such as Zachary, rely on the devices
to talk for them.
"He has always been able to use pointing, some modified sign
language and eye gaze to get his needs and wants across," Danya
Bryant said, "but until he started using a device, anything
deeper was impossible to understand."
The devices help disabled children communicate, but they are
difficult to master.
Camp Chatterbox, founded in 1992 by Joan Bruno of the Children's
Specialized Hospital in New Jersey, helps children with limited
communication abilities become comfortable with their
About 35 children who use communication devices attend weeklong
sessions at two sites.
The original camp, which Zachary attends, is in Worcester, Pa.
The other is in Hudson, Ill.
Families attend the camps with their children. There also are
about 20 siblings of disabled children involved in camp.
Training sessions for parents are offered throughout the day so
their children can continue the successes of camp at home, Bruno
"There's a need for children who are included in regular schools
to be able to receive more intensive therapy using devices, and
I wanted to train their parents in becoming more competent in
managing their technology," said Bruno, who is the director of
the educational technology department at the Children's
"During the week of camp, Zach gets an opportunity to use his
device much more than in a normal day," Danya Bryant said.
"He gets to socialize with other kids in his shoes. Plus, the
entire staff knows how to encourage him to use his device."
Zachary attended Delrey Preschool in Baltimore from age 3
through kindergarten, where he learned to use his first
augmentative and alternative communication device, a Dynavox. He
will attend Shiloh Middle School in the fall after completing
Hampstead Elementary, where he was included in regular classes
with the help of an assistant. He earns A's and B's and is at
grade level in reading and math.
Danya Bryant said her son does the same quality work as the rest
of his classmates, just not the same quantity.
At camp, children are organized into groups according to age and
ability, and participate in activities designed to improve their
communication skills. The camp theme this year is "Party Time."
Children perform in skits using new vocabulary and take turns
staffing the camp store, where they communicate with customers.
They also take time out for swimming, scavenger hunts, games,
campfires and a talent show.
Several families share a cabin for the week, grouped by the age
of the campers.
Bruno said one of the goals of the camp is to foster peer
interaction and communication.
Zachary, who will be attending the camp this month, has been
there the past two summers.
After the children go to sleep, parents have time to discuss the
experience of having children with impaired speech abilities.
"This is a pretty rare occurrence, to have a kid this bright and
yet this physically impaired and unable to speak," Danya Bryant
"We all have something in common."
Zachary "gains a lot of confidence from being around other
people who do well. The staff does a good job of letting them be
as independent as they can be," she said.
"A lot of times kids don't realize the power of the device until
they see another kid use it."
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