Technology helps disabled kids find their voice

February 20, 2006

Laptop computers that combine features from popular toys with innovative technology have rapidly accelerated the learning and communication ability of disabled children, Penn State researchers say. The technology could in the future be adapted to victims of major accidents and the elderly as well.

According to Janice Light, distinguished professor of communication sciences and disorders at Penn State, more than 2 million Americans are unable to use speech to communicate, and children are a major component of this population. "Kids learn and communicate through speech by trying out new words and forming sentences," says Light. "f they can't do that due to problems such as autism, Down syndrome, and cerebral palsy, then it is going to be difficult to learn how to read and write, make friends, and communicate their needs."

Computer-based technology that provides speech output is increasingly being used to assist such children in communicating but Light feels it has not yet fully served its purpose.

"The design of many of these systems is really based on how adults think, and the machines are complicated and children take years learning how to use them," adds Light, who presented her findings today (Feb. 20) at the 2006 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

"As a result, the children miss several years of a crucial learning period and fall further behind normal children. Due to their impoverished learning environment, they're really locked in, in a way," she adds.

Light and her colleagues are currently working on a five-year research grant to redesign assistive technology to improve the ability of these children to learn and communicate in a more meaningful way. The key, she says, is to come up with technology that is appealing to children, easy to learn and simple to operate.

"We've actually brought in teams of young kids, posed a problem to them of a child who isn't able to walk and talk and set them loose to build an invention to help such a child," says the Penn State researcher. The feedback tells researchers the kind of features children value.

"The real key is having fun. And the kids talk about that as they build their inventions. They say things like 'it has to have smile power', they like a lot of bright colors, and want to laugh, and make burping sounds," she notes. As an example of such technology, Light shows a colorful toy-like laptop computer fitted with a touch-sensitive screen, using a Visual Screen Display, embedded with "hot spots" that the children can press to produce sounds of laughter and words, and to learn language.

Since very young children are not readers, the idea is to take a child's experiences and represent it interactively through digital photos of the child, the family, or storybook cartoons, she says.

The technology is already proving its mettle. Some two and three-year olds are showing signs of becoming early readers. And early trials with 15 and 25-month old children show an improvement of about 20 to 50 times in communication skills, as well as a significant increase in vocabulary.

These are probably the youngest children in the world using such technology, according to Light, and she adds that future trials will involve infants with disabilities as young as 8 months old.

"Our goal ultimately is to put the system in front of the child and from the first moment, the child is able to intuitively use it," says the Penn State researcher.
-end-
The National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research of the U.S. Department of Education funded this project, directed by Light and Kathryn Drager, assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders at Penn State.

Penn State

Related Learning Articles from Brightsurf:

Learning the language of sugars
We're told not to eat too much sugar, but in reality, all of our cells are covered in sugar molecules called glycans.

When learning on your own is not enough
We make decisions based on not only our own learning experience, but also learning from others.

Learning more about particle collisions with machine learning
A team of Argonne scientists has devised a machine learning algorithm that calculates, with low computational time, how the ATLAS detector in the Large Hadron Collider would respond to the ten times more data expected with a planned upgrade in 2027.

Getting kids moving, and learning
Children are set to move more, improve their skills, and come up with their own creative tennis games with the launch of HomeCourtTennis, a new initiative to assist teachers and coaches with keeping kids active while at home.

How expectations influence learning
During learning, the brain is a prediction engine that continually makes theories about our environment and accurately registers whether an assumption is true or not.

Technology in higher education: learning with it instead of from it
Technology has shifted the way that professors teach students in higher education.

Learning is optimized when we fail 15% of the time
If you're always scoring 100%, you're probably not learning anything new.

School spending cuts triggered by great recession linked to sizable learning losses for learning losses for students in hardest hit areas
Substantial school spending cuts triggered by the Great Recession were associated with sizable losses in academic achievement for students living in counties most affected by the economic downturn, according to a new study published today in AERA Open, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association.

Lessons in learning
A new Harvard study shows that, though students felt like they learned more from traditional lectures, they actually learned more when taking part in active learning classrooms.

Learning to look
A team led by JGI scientists has overhauled the perception of inovirus diversity.

Read More: Learning News and Learning Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.