Amid fun, help communicating

Camp: Disabled youths learn to use devices that help them speak with others.

August 02, 2004|By Jessie Parker | Jessie Parker,SUN STAFF

For 12-year-old Zachary Bryant of Hampstead, attending summer camp is about more than having fun. He is learning to master a device that helps him do something most children take for granted: communicate.

When Zachary was about 8 months old and hadn't yet sat up or rolled over, his parents realized something was wrong.

"You could tell he focused on things; he laughed appropriately. Intelligence-wise I knew he was in there," said Danya Bryant, Zachary's mother.

"He just didn't develop. ... He was 8 months old and wasn't really doing anything new."

Zachary was found to have athetoid cerebral palsy. His muscle control is limited, and he is unable to talk or walk on his own.

"He's physically unable to do anything for himself, so I have to feed him," said Danya Bryant.

"He can get around in his power wheelchair as long as it's an accessible environment, which not all environments are."

To communicate, Zachary uses a Pathfinder, which is about the size of a laptop computer and attaches to his wheelchair. It encodes about 5,000 words, categorized in logical groups, such as places, people and food.

The device uses symbols to represent words that a text-to-speech synthesizer pronounces. Users can spell out less common words and can use the same system to write, which Zachary does in school.

Some children use such tools when dealing with people unfamiliar with their speech. Others, such as Zachary, rely on the devices to talk for them.

"He has always been able to use pointing, some modified sign language and eye gaze to get his needs and wants across," Danya Bryant said, "but until he started using a device, anything deeper was impossible to understand."

The devices help disabled children communicate, but they are difficult to master.

Camp Chatterbox, founded in 1992 by Joan Bruno of the Children's Specialized Hospital in New Jersey, helps children with limited communication abilities become comfortable with their communication aids.

About 35 children who use communication devices attend weeklong sessions at two sites.

The original camp, which Zachary attends, is in Worcester, Pa. The other is in Hudson, Ill.

Families attend the camps with their children. There also are about 20 siblings of disabled children involved in camp.

Training sessions for parents are offered throughout the day so their children can continue the successes of camp at home, Bruno said.

"There's a need for children who are included in regular schools to be able to receive more intensive therapy using devices, and I wanted to train their parents in becoming more competent in managing their technology," said Bruno, who is the director of the educational technology department at the Children's Specialized Hospital.

"During the week of camp, Zach gets an opportunity to use his device much more than in a normal day," Danya Bryant said.

Zachary attended Delrey Preschool in Baltimore from age 3 through kindergarten, where he learned to use his first augmentative and alternative communication device, a Dynavox. He will attend Shiloh Middle School in the fall after having completed Hampstead Elementary, where he was included in regular classes with the help of an assistant. He earns A's and B's and is at grade level in reading and math.

Danya Bryant said her son does the same quality work as the rest of his classmates, just not the same quantity.

At camp, children are organized into groups according to age and ability, and participate in activities designed to improve communication skills. The camp theme this year is "Party Time."

Children perform in skits using new vocabulary and take turns staffing the camp store, where they communicate with customers.

They also take time out for swimming, games, campfires and a talent show.

Several families share a cabin for the week, grouped by the age of the campers.

After the children go to sleep, parents have time to discuss the experience of having children with impaired speech abilities.

"We all have something in common," Danya Bryant said.

Zachary "gains a lot of confidence from being around other people who do well. The staff does a good job of letting them be as independent as they can be," she said.

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