An iPad app displays various images of animals, colours and days of the week. The device is fastened to a stand attached to the front of the wheelchair, an arm’s length away from five-year-old Toby Morris. Extending his arm, he pushes a picture and a female’s voice says “orange.” Smiling widely, he communicates his mother’s favourite colour.
“This is his voice,” says Toby’s mother, Andrea Morris, as she sits on the floor next to him. “It’s not just a device, it’s not just a play-thing. I feel like when he doesn’t have it, my heart breaks because it’s almost like he’s being gagged. He’s not able to say something if he wanted to.”
The app and iPad were provided to Toby through a program called Getting Ready for Inclusion Today (GRIT), a non-profit based out of Edmonton.
Through GRIT, Toby has also been provided a team of experts, ranging from speech pathologists to nurses, who work directly with him on a daily basis.
“He’s benefitted so much from it, his aide is really amazing,” she says.
The program provides a nurse and an aide to join Toby in his classroom each day. The aide will help teach Toby what the class is learning and the nurse will provide the medical care he needs.
“That’s why GRIT is so good, it focuses on inclusiveness and providing children with disabilities the same opportunities to learn as the other kids,” she says.
Toby was born with spina bifida and additional complications in relation to the birth defect. He’s unable to walk or talk, He is fed through a feeding tube and regularly has a suction tube inserted into a hole in his throat to remove mucus.
Toby will stay with the GRIT program until he turns six and enters Grade 1, when his needs will be provided by the school he attends. His mother says without the program he wouldn’t be where he is today. “Everything has improved. When he first started his left hand was paralyzed and now he’s able to pick things up with it,” she says. “Physically when we started the program he wasn’t able to push himself in a wheelchair, he wasn’t able to sit up on his own.”
GRIT provides services to children with developmental disabilities from the ages of two-and-a-half to six years old.
The program recently received a grant of about $67,000 from the Alberta Government to support a project led by GRIT, called Giving Every Child a Voice Project. The matched-grant will go towards equipment and a new staff position.
Toby has already worked with the new staff member, who specializes in augmentative and alternative communication – devices that provide alternative forms of communication such as Toby’s iPad app.
“Her knowledge and her expertise is incredible. She knows things and techniques and theory and research that I didn’t even know existed,” Andrea says.
Krista Wennerstrom, program manager for both GRIT and Giving Every Child a Voice Project, says receiving the grant will help move the project forward.
“We were really aware of this gap in our professional knowledge and time and resources to be able to provide support to these young children,” she says. “The grant will help us purchase the equipment we need and pay for the staff that will guide the selection of equipment.”
Giving Every Child a Voice Project is specifically designed to provide services for children who are nonverbal or need an alternative way to communicate.
Through the project, individuals who aren’t able to speak are given various augmentative and alternative communication devices. Taking a trial-and-error approach, the child will try various apps and devices until they find the one that works for them.
Toby has tried five other devices before switching to his current app, called TouchChat with WordPower. When mastered, Toby will be able to speak in sentences and describe how he’s feeling.
Currently Toby uses a mixture of commands from TouchChat with WordPower and sign language.