Assistive technology app helps students with special needs communicate
Those were the first words Cassie Banda-Garcia’s parents Jojo and Sofia Garcia could clearly hear her say.
“The first thing she said was ‘I want chicken nuggets,’ not ‘I love you’ or anything like that, she said ‘I want chicken nuggets,” Sofia Garcia said laughing.
In the past few months, Cassie, who has difficulty speaking because she has Down syndrome, has been using the Proloquo2go  — a symbol supported communication application that gives a voice for people who cannot speak — on her iPad.
“Without the iPad, she would get very frustrated with us,” Sofia Garcia said. “Her comprehension skills are there. She understands everything and she wants to communicate with us but she could not verbalize it and that made it very frustrating.”
(Next page: How the app helps students with special needs)
With the financial assistance of Ability Connection Texas (ACT), a group that has been providing care and support to people with disabilities for more than 60 years, Cassie is able to communicate in a way she could never have before.
“I love my iPad,” Cassie said by tapping buttons with words or phrases on her iPad. “The iPad is for others to understand what I want. All my friends at school want one, too.”
The iPad and the Proloquo2go app allow Cassie to download natural-sounding text-to-speech adult and children’s voices.
“It has become a part of her; it goes with her everywhere,” Sofia Garcia said. “When she goes to grandma’s house, she takes it, when she goes anywhere, we send it with her in her backpack.”
Cassie received her iPad in September 2013 and spent several months learning how to use it.
“As she is getting older and becoming a teenager, she was getting more frustrated and would say, “Why don’t you understand me?’ so this is really relieving some of that frustration for her,” Sofia Garcia said. “Life has gotten a lot easier because we are able to communicate with her. It’s made life less stressful. We’re not having those communication issues like we had before.”
Noelle Coley, the market manager for Ability Connection Texas in El Paso, said the purpose of ACT is multifaceted.
“Our mission is to provide a full range of services for anybody who has an intellectual, developmental or physical disability, adult or child, and their pursuit to gain independence,” she said.
ACT advocates for the rights of people with disabilities in many ways including providing services in education and training, nursing, speech language pathology, financial needs, in-home support and the assistive technology program (also known as Removing Limits Through Technology program) that Cassie is a part of.
The program educates children and adults on how to use assistive technology to be more independent in their daily lives.
“We’ve only been in El Paso for two and half years and have helped about 50 people so far,” Coley said. “The more support that we gain from the community, the more devices we are able to give out and the more people we will be able to help.”
Cassie’s iPad, the app and the training hours cost ACT between $2,500 to $3,000.
ACT will have an Ability Walk at 9:30 p.m. Saturday at Vista Del Valle Park, 1288 Hawkins.
“All the money stays here,” Coley said. “Every cent and every dollar stays in our community and goes to our programs and services. We are all for El Paso, nothing is being bled out.”
ACT El Paso has provided motorized wheelchairs and other beneficial material to children and adults.
“We really don’t have a limit,” Coley said. “We also have a Tech for Tots program for children 9-months to 4-years-old. “We gave four iPads and we are working on a wheelchair for another student at Moye Elementary.”
Ray Hernandez, the life skills teacher at Morehead Middle School where Cassie attends, said the iPad has made it easier to teach her.
“Cassie is really high level,” Hernandez said. “She has a lot to share but sometimes she is not able to communicate that to others. With the communication device, she’s been able to tell us her wants and needs. She is getting very good at it.”
Jojo Garcia said its refreshing to be able to understand his stepdaughter.
“Me being new to having a child with Down Syndrome, it was really difficult to understand what she was asking for,” he said. “Our middle son David would have to interpret what she was saying. He could understood her because he grew up with her. Even our four year old Adara could understands what Cassie was saying.”
When asked what she wants to do when she grows up, Cassie said, “I want to be a nurse so I can give dad a shot in the arm.”
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