Tony Bonofiglo was trying to be as helpful as possible to the woman sitting across from him. She was wearing a blue plastic band on her head with a playing card tucked inside. The card had a picture of a duck on it.
“Do I have fur?” the woman asked through an electronic voice she summoned by tapping a character on the tablet in front of her.
Tony chuckled and used his own device to indicate a negative: No fur.
The exercise between Tony and his partner, as well as five other pairs of people with disabilities who are nonverbal, was more than a friendly game. It was meant to provide a chance to practice with assistive technology.
“He just got this, so he’s here hoping to learn how to use it,” said Sue Erickson, who gestured toward her son, Joe, as he tapped tentatively at the device on his lap. “I have two cats and one dog,” came a voice from Joe’s device, which has been programmed with conversational phrases he can use to communicate with others.
“He’s good with the VCR and the computer, so he should be able to get this,” his mother said.
Communication is Vital
Brian Hagler brought his son, Christopher, from Lansing to take part in the group. He said Christopher just got his device and only knows one other person in Lansing who uses one. “There’s nothing like this group where we live,” Hagler said. “This can really open doors for him.”
Until recently, there wasn’t anything like it in Kent County either.
Kent ISD physical therapist Michelle Gallery spends her days working with people in 14 locations across the county. She and Kindy Segovia, Kent ISD assistive technology supervisor, thought people could learn from one another.
“We see all these people, but we have no way to connect them with each other,” Gallery said. “We wanted to find a way to do that without violating any privacy laws.”
Segovia said even learning how to use assistive technology can be a barrier.
“There is not time during the school day dedicated to learning a device or system,” she said. “We also must remember that the adults and peers including parents and family also must be trained so they can help program language and assist with implementation, and outside therapy is very expensive and typically not covered by insurance for a person with a developmental disability.”
The Talking With Tech group has met three times since it started in the fall. Attendance has already tripled, said Segovia. Participants range in age from 4 to adult. Graduate students from Grand Valley State University’s physical therapy program and therapists from Mary Free Bed also take part.
“The more people who get involved, the more we can learn from one another,” Segovia said.
Benefits Beyond Just the Tech
Tony, a senior at Forest Hills Northern High School, recently was honored with a self-advocacy award by the Michigan Council for Exceptional Children. He speaks at elementary schools and colleges about living with a disability and has been using assistive technology devices since he was 3.
“Time and practice are key” to using the technology, Tony said. “This group is a wonderful experience because it gives people the chance to connect with different devices.”
And with people. “My favorite thing to do is talk to other people,” Tony said.
Tony’s mother, Dianne Bonofiglo, said it’s good for her son to be involved with the group. “It’s definitely an opportunity for him to be on the giving end,” she said.