The Cantalician Center in Depew offers a full range of services for individuals with disabilities, from children through adults. Thanks to a $125,000 grant from the Tower Foundation, the center has been able to give nonverbal children a new way to communicate with teachers, family members and friends with the help of the latest technology.
The grant allowed the center to purchase iPads and install speech software on them. Children are able to access preprogrammed words and phrases in the software, and then select them via the tablets' touch screens for the devices to read out loud. This allows them to respond when they are spoken to and express emotions, personalities and senses of humor like never before.
"Three years ago, we started a grant. The Tower Foundation was very generous with us. With those funds, our goal was to give our students an opportunity to use a speech-generated device long enough to get the data so that we could order them their own units," said Suzanne Ruska, head of the speech program at the Cantalician Center.
Initially, they were able to get devices loaned to them, but students needed them for a longer period of time, so the grant let them buy the devices. Twenty-six students currently have their own. Four became verbal communicators after previously being nonverbal.
Lee Ann Terhune, a speech therapist, has worked with 9-year-old Brayden Davis since she started her job at the Cantalician Center a year ago. Brayden has speech apraxia, meaning he understands spoken language and knows what he wants to say, but has difficulty putting syllables together in the proper order to form the desired words.
"The iPad has really opened up a lot of doors for Brayden and children with similar challenges," Terhune explained. "He can read, which is amazing, so sometimes I'll do really basic story comprehension to ask him questions about the story."
Speech therapists, classroom teachers and parents are responsible for programming appropriate words and phrases into the iPads. Children also take them home to communicate with family and friends.
Terhune demonstrated how Brayden, after being shown a $5 bill, used his iPad to tell her he wished to to purchase a KitKat bar and a bag of popcorn, which they then went downstairs to buy from the school store. Grace Davis, Brayden's mother, is able to program her son's iPad, which helped him talk to his relatives on Thanksgiving.
"He has actual pictures of family members (in the iPad). He was sitting around at the Thanksgiving table, and he actually sat through the entire meal with us, which was a first time. He talked to each individual person at the table: his aunt, his cousins, his Papa (his grandfather). He was able to say what he was eating on the table in front of him," she said.
Davis said she always knew that her son was capable of communicating on a deeper level, but she wasn't able to find out how much he could do until now. "When the iPad project became available, I said, 'He's definitely a candidate for that,' because he loves playing games on the iPad," Davis said.
Before he got an iPad, Brayden would often lead his family around the house and show them what he needed. He communicated using PECS, or a picture exchange communication system, with small printed pictures on Velcro in a book. However, this had its limits.
"I knew he was capable of doing so much more," his mother said. "Now he's on to sentences with his iPad, and he can hear the voice projected. He's very motivated by using money at the school store. It's a new skill he's learning."
Brayden's iPad has also allowed his unique sense of humor to come out. Both Terhune and Davis have noticed that he will sometimes select the most outlandish answer on his iPad instead of the correct one, and then laugh about it.
"According to mom, he's really starting to use it more and more in the community and at home, so I think that's the biggest change," Terhune added. "It has shown us that he can spell. Without this, we would never have known that."
The Cantalician Center offers full-time schooling for children and young adults from preschool through age 21, and 190 students currently attend school there. Area school districts provide referrals for special needs children who might be an ideal fit for the Cantalician Center.
Before receiving an iPad, a child is required to undergo an evaluation to see if he or she is a proper candidate. Depending on the cognitive ability of the child, an iPad may or may not be an ideal fit for him or her.
However, for students who were a fit, the iPads led to a marked improvement in their skills. Ruska said therapists and parents reported noticing children telling knock-knock jokes, talking about vocational futures and going into doctors' offices and telling staff what was wrong with them. Some improved enough to be able to return to special education classes at district schools.