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iPads help patients at The Children's Center find their voices

New iPads add to the high-tech tools used to help improve disabled children's communication. To the patients at The Children's Center in Bethany, it opens up communication so that the child communicates without the teacher or therapist always having to interpret.
BY SONYA COLBERG Published: January 8, 2012

Abbagale Gonzales slightly lifts the corners of her Cupid's-bow lips and looks upward with soft, brown eyes.

That is the way she says, “Yes.”

Her language consisted primarily of those subtle movements until just a few months ago.

The 3-year-old's mind is agile but she's trapped in a nearly motionless body, her words seemingly forever lost in an unforgiving tangle of ventilator and tracheotomy tubes made necessary by a disorder called spinal muscular atrophy.

But now technology is helping Abbagale find her voice.

Abbagale is a patient living at The Children's Center in Bethany, where teachers recently began incorporating iPads into patients' therapy to enhance learning and communication.

The disorder causes progressive muscular weakness that prevents movements such as grasping. So slings hang from the top of Abbagale's hot pink wheelchair, supporting her elbows and wrists so her hands can move enough to use an iPad.

“She doesn't have the strength to use a computer keyboard or to grasp a crayon,” said special education teacher Mindy Cash.

Scribbling helps children learn to communicate, she explained. But that early step is often lost to children like Abbagale who can't hold a crayon or tap a keyboard.

Yet with her wrists in slings, Abbagale can draw or “turn” the pages of an alphabet book by lightly sliding a fingertip across the iPad screen.

Her teacher asked if she wanted to draw. The child turned those big eyes upward, meaning yes.

Smiling almost imperceptibly as the app for drawing sprang to life, Abbagale moves her right hand so two fingers could softly draw a jagged oval and some lines across the sensitivity-adjusted iPad screen lying on her wheelchair table.

After a few moments, Cash noticed a meaningful glance from Abbagale.

“So you want to choose a color to draw with,” she said.

Cash pointed to dots of various colors on the screen of a communication device called a MyTobii P10, situated about a foot above the child.

Abbagale gazed at a pink circle on the screen and her scribbles on the iPad turned pink. Seconds later, she chose a new color to draw with by gazing at a purple circle.

“I like that big smile,” Cash told Abbagale.

“This is allowing her to be independent ... to give her communication,” she said. “It's so engaging. It just captivates them.”

Bethany Public Schools initially loaned five iPads to the center for use in classrooms like the one Abbagale daily shares with Fletcher Burns, 7, and Azon Meyers, 3. In the past few weeks, the nonprofit hospital was able to buy 15 iPads through a grant.

Since its release in the spring of 2010, the iPad has become a popular technology used by those with disabilities, though no one has tracked statistics on those uses. Along with the new iPads, the MyTobii, and the Xbox 360 with Kinect app are just a few of the high-tech tools the hospital incorporates into the children's therapy.

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The Children's Center

Residents: About 120 medically fragile children live in The Children's Center and receive treatment.

Background: The Children's Center began as an orphanage in 1898, when founder Mattie Mallory felt called by God to help the orphans of Oklahoma City. After Mallory operated the orphanage at several downtown locations, she moved the children in 1909 to 6800 NW 39th Expressway in Bethany, where the private nonprofit hospital exists today.

Current services: Today, the hospital offers medical services, rehabilitative care and social services to children in long-term care, children in short-term rehabilitation after experiencing trauma such as a brain or spinal cord injury, and several thousand outpatients who visit the hospital and the pediatric clinic. Clinical treatment ranges from general pediatrics for typically developing children to specialized medicine for children with complex disabilities.

Ages: Ranging in age from birth to 17, patients have disabilities resulting from birth defects, complications at birth, accidents and illnesses.

Numbers: The Children's Center has more than 475 employees and an operating budget of about $24 million.

Compiled by SONYA COLBERG, Staff Writer


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