Northwest suburban special ed group's technology helps all students learn

 
 
Posted4/21/2016 5:33 AM
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Bailey Burak may not be able to form sentences on her own, but using just her eyes she can direct her computer to tell her teacher when she's had enough to eat, ask questions or share how she's feeling.

Ian Cornell may not be able to walk, but using technology that responds to the movement of his chin he can crush cans to be recycled and feel pride in accomplishing a task.

Those are just a few ways that NSSEO -- Northwest Suburban Special Education Organization -- is using technology to help connect, communicate and empower students who have severe disabilities.

Mary Ann McGinn, technology coordinator for NSSEO, said that individualized technology is helping nearly every student learn at the organization's eight member districts across the Northwest suburbs.

"It really has opened up doors for a lot of our students," McGinn said. "It becomes like an equalizer for students who have different learning needs and helps take away some of the challenges they might have."

For some students that could mean using apps on an iPad, which responds easily to touch and can show videos with closed captions, read books to students with hearing disabilities or help teach words through photos.

Fourteen-year-old C.J. Geier touches a picture of a planet on his iPad with the help of an aide. The iPad speaks, telling him a fact about the planet and its place in the Solar System.

Not all students have the fine motor skills to work with an iPad.

Special education teacher Rosa Mueller shows Ian Cornell the cans he crushed using a can crusher he activated with a chin switch.
  Special education teacher Rosa Mueller shows Ian Cornell the cans he crushed using a can crusher he activated with a chin switch. - Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

Fourth-grader Abhi Lakkireddy repeatedly hits a large blue button with her hand. It turns the page on a book projected on the screen in front of her, a computer reads the words to her and highlights vocabulary words for her to practice.

NSSEO Superintendent Judy Hackett said they try to target the technology to each student's ability. The programs available to help them fine tune that get better each year, she said.

"It has been incredible for us in the world of special education to see technology open up even more opportunities for our students," she said.

Some of those opportunities help teachers and families to communicate with students whose disability prevents them from speaking, like the eye gaze technology Burak was using on Wednesday.

C.J. Geier gets a science lesson from classroom aide Caroline Nakic, using a tablet.
  C.J. Geier gets a science lesson from classroom aide Caroline Nakic, using a tablet. - Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

The screen in front of the 10th-grader has a wide array of questions and phrases ranging from "I need to go to the bathroom," to "I feel happy." Burak can select one by just moving the cursor -- which is connected to a camera -- with her eye movement.

"The nature of their disability might limit their ability to be independent, but this is opening up something in their environment that they can control," said Jill Anderson, assistant principal of Kirk School, which has 170 students with significant needs ranging from ages 3 to 22.

High school freshman Fernanda Rodriguez is learning to use the eye gaze technology. For students like Rodriguez, who are wheelchair users and have cerebral palsy or another condition that leaves them with little control over their arms, their eyes can be the one body part within their control.

A closer look at the touch screen that special education teacher Brittany Schmitt uses to help communicate with student Bailey Burak.
  A closer look at the touch screen that special education teacher Brittany Schmitt uses to help communicate with student Bailey Burak. - Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

When Rodriguez looks at a bull's-eye on the screen, the camera picks up her eye movement and music starts. The target moves elsewhere on the screen, she meets it again with her eye and a video comes on.

"It's a form of communication," said Joan Obial, instructional technology coach. "It allows her to engage in the same classroom activities as her peers."

Cornell, who is also in a wheelchair, can control only the movement of his mouth. The school has a special collar set up beneath his chin that connects to machinery in Kirk School's vocational training workshop. When he drops his chin, the collar activates whatever it is plugged into. He can use it to sharpen pencils, crush cans or other tasks.

Special education teacher Brittany Schmitt uses a touch screen that helps she and Bailey Burak to communicate.
  Special education teacher Brittany Schmitt uses a touch screen that helps she and Bailey Burak to communicate. - Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

"It gives him the independence that he can have skills to be a part of the community," said teacher Rosa Mueller. "It's all about empowering, teaching and learning any way they can."

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