In his entire life, Tyler Kirk hasn’t been able to talk. He can read, write and hear, but multiple disabilities have left the 17-year-old unable to engage in a conversation — until now.
Special education teachers at Copley High School, where Tyler is a junior, were awarded a grant earlier this year that permitted them to buy iPads for their students. And, without his family’s knowledge, AtNetPlus of Stow donated an iPad for Tyler to use at home.
His grandmother, Cindy Hane, who has raised Tyler since birth, was called to the school a couple of months ago. Tyler joined her in a room where a gift bag sat on a table. His eyes lit up as he was certain it was a present for him.
Because he was familiar with using an iPad during the school day, Tyler was quickly able to express his appreciation for the gift. As teachers, his grandmother and others watched, he placed his finger on the touch screen and spelled out his thoughts.
“Thank you,” the voice from the device said aloud.
Overwhelmed, Hane began to shake. It was the first time she had heard her grandson’s thoughts.
“Inside I was crying and trying not to bust out in front of everybody,” she recalled. “When I got out to the car, that’s when I let out my cries.”
Unlocking the brain
Because the iPad is still in its infancy, there is no long-term research on its use by those with special needs. But if Tyler is any indication, it can change lives.
Laurie Heikkila, a technology consultant for the Summit County Education Service Center who holds presentations on the use of the iPad by those with developmental disabilities, is pleased that the teachers at Copley have been so aggressive in using the devices with their students.
“A lot of times we see this being used with kids with autism … in early childhood years, but I wasn’t seeing very many examples in the high school years,” said Heikkila.
The Copley educators, Heikkila added, knew that some of their students were very smart but their disabilities held them back. So they researched iPad apps, like the speech-generating Proloquo 2Go, and other software that would help unlock the information tucked away in the students’ heads.
The iPads are smaller than a letter-sized piece of paper and weigh under two pounds, making them very portable. That’s an important point when students like Tyler are using them to communicate with others.
Prior to introducing Tyler to the iPad, the staff had tried to get him to use various communication devices, but special education teacher Jodie Chalfant said the teen wasn’t motivated to use them. “We tried … every device and nothing worked — until now.”
Instead, Tyler used a paper keyboard to spell, but it was difficult to keep up with his busy hands. And, of course, there was no sound.
Enter the iPad
Teachers noticed that something was bothering Tyler. In the past, staff resorted to a guessing game to determine what was wrong with the boy. With his iPad, he can help them diagnose the problem.
When asked if he was sick, Tyler wrote, “Sick. Head.”
On Mondays, students in Tyler’s room have breakfast. When asked if he would like a piece of toast, he had always declined. Teachers reasoned that he simply didn’t like the taste.
But on a recent morning when the question was put to him, Tyler was able to tap out on his iPad — “peanut butter.” It seems the boy prefers his toast with the spread, and now gobbles it down.
Tyler isn’t the only one who has benefited from the iPads in the classroom. Special education teacher Julie Markin described a non-verbal student who stood up in class, and because he was unable to ask to use the restroom, he simply urinated where he was standing.
“Today, he typed ‘toilet’ and the iPad spoke,” Markin said. “For us, that’s big.”
Communication is really what’s most important to the lives of these students, and their families. And because of the iPad’s size, Tyler is able to carry it with him wherever he goes. He and his grandmother can now sit beside each other on the couch and chat.
“He called me ‘mama,’ ” Hare offered. “For the first time, I heard him say it.”
The littlest ones
Akron toddler Jacoby Schadle, 2½, maneuvered through the apps on his mother’s iPad like a pro. His little sister, 7-month-old Jocelyn, swiped her pudgy fingers, and sometimes her feet, on the screen — lighting the device up with bright greens, yellows and reds.
“This is coloring without the mess,” said their mother, Jenna Strouse Schadle, a social studies teacher at Aurora High School with a master’s degree in administration and another in instructional technology.
Parents are finding iPads and similar devices are helpful not just for kids with disabilities, but for those who are too young to speak for themselves. And learning to use these devices at a young age may benefit them in the long run.
“I feel if kids today don’t understand how to use it (technology), they are going to be left behind — not only in school, but in life,” Schadle said. “It is becoming vital to have access to everything — email, the Internet, jobs, school, everything.”
Still Schadle agrees with Heikkila that the use of devices such as computers, iPads and iPhones need to be balanced with things like Play-Doh and outdoor play.
“He would be fine if I put anything in front of him. I could put blocks in front of him, and he would be fine. I could put the iPhone in front of him and he would be entertained,” Schadle said of her son. “We don’t use them all that often.”
Schadle doesn’t hesitate to admit that she sometimes lets her son play educational games on her cellphone while waiting in the doctor’s office or shopping at the grocery store.
Because the devices are expensive and kids can be careless, she and her husband, Joe, have a protective cover on the iPad.
When Jacoby was between 1 and 2 years of age, he used the iPad to learn some basic baby sign language — like eat and diaper. The signs let his parents know that the baby was hungry or needed his diaper changed. (Even Mom got in on the act, using apps that have sounds that help lull her children to sleep, and another that kept track of her breast-feeding schedule.)
Soon, little Jocelyn will use the iPad to learn the signs.
No wonder sociologists call today’s kids the iGeneration.
Kim Hone-McMahan can be reached at 330-996-3742 or firstname.lastname@example.org.