Technology helps disabled kids find their voice

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 an

Contact: Amitabha Avasthi
Penn State

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