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The SMART Road To Assistive Tech for ALL

In 2010, I was working at an educational non-profit when I helped to start a support group of parents and therapists where we shared information on how smartphones and touch tablets could help children with disabilities improve developmental skills. I was interested in how technology could help my youngest son Vincent, who at the age of 6 had the fine motor skills of an 18 month old. I knew that he would never write with a pen and paper, but I also knew that technology could play a big role in his early education and throughout his life.

Vincent had tried joysticks and other technology prior to the tablet to write and communicate, but he needed hand over hand assistance to operate them. However, with the iPad he was able to navigate independently. What a boost to his confidence and an ease to his frustration!

Other parents and therapists had similar thoughts but, because this mobile technology was so new, we spent hours exploring possibilities of which apps were the most helpful for our kids. We were overwhelmed by the sheer number of apps available, so we set out to find a way to make searching easier for parents and professionals. That support group and quest for solutions turned into BridgingApps, a website and program of Easter Seals Greater Houston.

Becoming part of Easter Seals Greater Houston has been a blessing in the most profound way for this program and for our family. With the help of Easter Seals’ leadership and vision to help the program grow as quickly as possible, we have been able to make great strides in its’ development and reach. In 2014, BridgingApps won the Verizon Powerful Answers Award for Education that came with a $700,000 prize.  Our website is filled with resources for people of all ages and abilities – parents, caregivers, therapists, doctors and people with disabilities – looking for the right apps to fit their needs.

We now have three assistive technology labs (Thanks to The George Foundation and ATT&T) in the Houston area and satellite support groups in Austin, the Rio Grande Valley and Fort Worth, Texas.  In 2016, we gave more than 55 presentations and trainings in Houston and around the country. Our website enjoys 9,000 registered users from 187 countries, 7,000 monthly visitors, a podcast segment, an online course, a regular column in a digital magazine, and 3,500 apps in our database. We are excited to explore new ways in which mobile technology can assist young adults with special health care needs, older adults, and seniors through collaborative projects with Texas Children’s Hospital, TIRR Memorial Hermann, Amerigroup/Anthem, UnitedHealthcare, and others.

As a veteran of the US Army, I am thrilled and honored this year to be working on a project that provides services and mental health supports to veterans and their families by using technology. Through a generous grant from TV+FA, we are able to provide technology training in different formats to veterans and their family members.  This spring we have already provided 10 Veterans Access Cafes in locations around Houston to demonstrate how smartphones can be used as a mental health support with apps like Calm, Swirlicity, and Stay Quit Coach. We continue to add content each week to www.bridgingapps.org/veteransresource  to share information on apps and other technologies that benefit veterans and their families.

Cristen Reat, Easter Seals Greater Houston, BridgingApps Founder

 

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From Fear to Confidence: Rudy’s Unexpected Journey with Technology

I met Rudy and his wife Andrea in April 2015, when BridgingApps, a program of Easter Seals Greater Houston, presented at the St. Luke’s Stroke Support Group on using apps and mobile devices. Like many who were recovering from a stroke, Rudy was interested in how technology could help him, but also overwhelmed by the idea.

“I was resistant because I thought it was too hard,” Rudy confides. “After my stroke, I thought learning was over. I really did.”  When asked what was difficult for him, he gave the example of reading. Rudy loves to read, but post-stroke the task of reading was not pleasurable as it had been before, just extremely difficult.  He would read something, lose his place often and not understand what he just read. It was frustrating and demoralizing.

Wanting to learn more and despite feeling overwhelmed, Rudy and Andrea attended a BridgingApps open house event in the spring, took a tour of the AT&T Assistive Technology lab and asked many questions about how mobile devices stroke_support_st._lukes-300x225might be used. “It would take me a hundred years to learn everything,” Rudy declared. I offered to lend Rudy an iPad to try it out for a month at home to see what he thought of it. Rudy was appreciative, but noncommittal and politely declined. I then suggested another option that might less stressful and invited Rudy and his wife to attend BridgingApps monthly collaborative training at the Apple Store Highland Village. These meetings take place in a distraction-free, low stress accessible room with compassionate, knowledgeable staff.

Rudy and Andrea attended the monthly classes facilitated by BridgingApps at the Apple Store. Though neither of them owned a mobile device, they came eager to learn each month and borrowed different sized devices for the hands-on trainings, including an iPhone, iPod Touch and full sized iPad. We covered everything from the accessibility features of iBooks, to speak screen, using Siri for shortcuts, calendar and notes apps and how to navigate the basics of the device. Rudy diligently took notes at each class, and Andrea was excited about his interest. Andrea said that she enjoyed the slow pace of the class and the fact that the instructor repeats instructions and simplifies them for participants.

One month in the fall, Rudy’s daughter Teresa and her husband attended the BridgingApps training together with Rudy and Andrea to see what her parents were up to. They shared a device, asked questions and practiced the various tasks. Throughout this process, Rudy began to relax and said “the whole experience has made me more aware of what my capabilities are. When I experienced the features of iBooks that allows the words to be read aloud to me, sped up or slowed down and highlighted as I go along, that was amazing to me! It really helped a lot, and if I don’t understand something or lose my place, with the touch of the screen I can hear it again and again.  I feel more confident.”

Fast forward to our monthly training in January 2016, where Rudy proudly whips out an iPhone 6 Plus and places it on the table next to his notebook ready to learn. Andrea giggles and puts her brand new device on the table. After class when I asked when they bought their devices, they answered “In December, Teresa said ‘enough’ and bought them for us!”  I asked how Rudy felt about having a smartphone and what he has been doing with it, he positively glows. “I love it. I read the news, I check the weather, I look at maps, and I FaceTime with my grandson who lives in Brownsville.”

Feb 2016 BA blog picAndrea chimes in “The other day I heard piano music, and there he was playing the piano using Garage Band.” Rudy laughs and adds “I love music and majored in it in school, so I discovered this app. It is fantastic.”

Next steps for Rudy and Andrea? “We love the classes and will continue to come. We are grateful for all that we have learned.”

Having watched this journey unfold and observing Rudy’s initial excitement, fear, hesitation, followed by determination and courage, it has been a privilege to get to know Rudy and his family. Andrea mentions that BridgingApps and this technology has opened up new horizons for Rudy that have surprised and delighted her.

“I really can learn again,” says Rudy with tears in his eyes.

Cristen Reat, BridgingApps Founder, Easter Seals Greater Houston

For more information on our BridgingApps program, click here.
To hear more about Rudy’s amazing story, click here.

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Richard’s Success Story

richardMeet Richard, an energetic and determined little seven-year-old boy whose favorite person in the world is his eleven-year-old sister Camille. Every morning, without fail, Richard bolts across the upstairs landing at our home to crawl into Camille’s bed and wake her up with slobbery kisses and tight, tight hugs. As his parents, we would say that any day spent with “the Big Boy” is one filled with affection, enthusiasm, and discovery. He has changed the lives and the character of every member of our family and continues to shape the ways they interact with the world each and every day.

Richard deals with significant cognitive delays related to Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorder, and epilepsy. In addition, he battles physical limitations related to celiac disease, asthma, and a thyroid deficiency. Through it all, though, Richard maintains an incredibly enthusiastic approach to life and transfers that enthusiasm to everyone with whom he comes into contact.

Richard has been using an iPad to communicate wants and needs for about three years thanks to Easter Seals Greater Houston‘s BridgingApps. He started with a full-sized iPad and now uses an iPad Mini. Richard’s ability to communicate using his iPad has changed his life immeasurably. No longer are his day-to-day needs trapped inside his own head. He can actively tell family members or caregivers what he would like to do, what he wants to eat, and even with whom he would like to do these activities. Most of the time, the person he asks for is his Mommy. The sense of autonomy that the iPad affords Richard is dramatic. His frustration level when it comes to articulating his thoughts has diminished significantly, and the resulting joy that is at the core of his personality takes center stage with more regularity.

We could not be the parents we want to be for Richard without his iPad and without the autonomy and independence it affords him. We no longer have to wonder what our little boy wants or needs. He is able to tell us, and he does so emphatically. As he has become more adept at using the iPad, Richard’s sense of humor (which was hidden for his first five years) has also begun to emerge. Turns out, he is a mischievous little rascal, which only endears him to us more.

Once Richard showed an inclination toward using the iPad, we decided to change speech therapists and began to see Betsy Furler at BridgingApps exclusively. She has been an invaluable resource to us and to Richard as she continually challenges him (and us) to lean into the device and its possibilities. Over the course of the time that we have worked with Betsy and BridgingApps, Richard’s acuity with the iPad has increased tenfold, and his abilities to express himself in more and more complex ways have allowed his personality to emerge and his quality of life to improve.

Cristen Reat, Easter Seals Greater Houston, BridgingApps Founder

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Timing is Everything, by Reji Mathew, Ph.D., Writer

The outpouring of emotion for the recent passing of tech genius, Steve Jobs, is validation of how much the magic of digital devices has become a central part of our daily lives.  Phones and tablets are lifestyle managers, offering apps that help with organization, planning for dinner or checking one’s budget. Jobs will be remembered as a central inspiration for the digital age, but how people continue to make creative use of digital technologies is the post-Jobs story.

SNApps 4 Kids is a cutting edge web community of parents and professionals who seek to share information on ways to use educational/therapy apps on the latest technology devices—iPad, iPhone, iPod, Android and others—to support the developmental learning goals for children of all abilities.

Cristen Reat and Sami Rahman co-founded SNApps 4 Kids after meeting at a weekly parenting support group that explores the use of digital tools for children with special needs in Houston, Texas.”SNApps started out of a need for an organizational structure. There are over 40,000 apps out in the market now. Just because an app says it’s designed for grades 2-3 does not provide much  info on how it can be helpful,” said Rahman.

SNApps 4 kids is parent-driven, offering detailed reviews on apps by skill, not diagnosis, such as color recognition, social inter-action, and language arts. “We wanted to keep the focus on skills, as we know that each child is unique in his or her strengths and needed areas of support. Many of the apps can be downloaded on Apple and Android tablets.  Devices will keep changing over time, but not the skills,” said Reat.

Rahman and Reat are believers in the benefits of apps, because they both are parents of children with special needs and seen positive results. Reat experimented with adaptive mouse pads for her son, Vincent, age 6, who has Downs Syndrome, “Vincent could not hold a pencil due to this fine and gross motor issues. We tried the iWriteWords app on the iPad. He began to trace letters with his fingers; it had an immediate cause-and-effect response with musical rewards. After a few weeks, he became  motivated to us his hands and transferred to using a pencil.” Rahman had similar success with his son, Noah, age 2, who has Cerebral Palsy. “Noah made gains in his speech through one of his favorite apps, Monkey Preschool Lunchbox. He also responded to the interactive nature of the app, and in addition, it also helped with this finger isolation skills.”

While Rahman and Reat are passionate about how apps can enhance earning, they have their caveats. “There are no magic bullets when your child has special needs”, said Rahman,”Progress is accomplished by 1,000 little tasks; digital tools alone are not the solution. We view apps as one part of the therapeutic team approach on behalf of your child.”

Reat cautioned, “We also don’t encourage parents to run out and by a device. Take a step back, ask a few questions: What do you want a device for? What skills are you trying to improve? What goals do you have? Once you find answers to these questions, then decide on the best device for your child.” Reat added that it is critical to have client buy-in. “You can’t hand a device to a child and leave; there needs to be support for the child around that device.”

Just over a year old, SNApps 4 Kids has undergone impressive growth. The community has partnered with Easter Seals
of Greater Houston and the web-site is accessible in multiple languages. SNApps 4 Kids offers a directory of funding sources for devices, a Facebook page, and a forthcoming checklist on goals and expectations to use when deciding what type of device to purchase.

If you are interested in joining the SNApps community, you can register with the site, which allows access to community boards and forums. You will be able to start your own group, share a success story or get further tips. SNApps 4 Kids continues to build momentum.  Rahman and Reat hope to expand to SNApps 4 Teens and Adults as the next ventures.

By Reji Mathew, Ph.D., Writer, http://rejimathewwriter.com/

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The Chance of a Lifetime, High School Students with Disabilities

Ask yourself – Why not give these teens a chance? Doesn’t everyone deserve it? All it takes is one hand up and not a hand out.  Can’t we all remember the person in our lives who gave us the one chance that altered our lives? Not to mention…did you know most of our world leaders and CEO’s have some type of learning disability?  Imagine the difference in our lives if Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, who also has dyslexia, hadn’t been given a chance? See 15 CEO’s with Learning Disabilities.

Everywhere you look there are stories about how finding a job in today’s market is becoming more and more difficult.  Imagine how especially difficult it is for a student trying to find his or her first job, especially when that student lacks the confidence in him or herself because of a disability.  And their families and teachers don’t want them to even try or are scared for them to get hurt? Wonder why the dropout rate for teens in high school is over 60%…

This is exactly why it is so important for these students to have the additional practice, and help in preparing for work related experiences and to be exposed to the opportunities that exist.  I think that we would be hard pressed to find anyone who could not use some practice in interviewing, but helping our high school students with disabilities is essential to aiding their success in entering the workforce. 

As we approach our fifth annual Interviewing Skills Workshop, I am excited to watch how much our students will gain from this one day.  Of course we practice sample interview questions throughout the year, but watching the students run through a mock interview with volunteer professionals that they don’t know, there is a noticeable improvement in the students’ confidence and comfort as they go from their first to their third or fourth round.  It seems unlikely, but the students actually like practicing their interviewing skills, and even practice with one another as they wait their turn for their next mock interview.  Obviously, all these teens need is encouragement and a little support. 

The main focus of High School / High Tech is to open a door to a future…whether that is graduating from high school and entering the workforce, or going to a trade school OR attending college when no one thought it was possible. In just a few shorts steps this program can introduce these teens to what is expected at a workplace, what is expected as an employee, the many, many different opportunities that exist and the possibilities you can create for yourself. And, the main focus of the Interviewing Skills Workshop is to teach our students more about interviewing skills. Each year as we finish up the day I am reminded of a few important lessons myself.  First, no matter how many times you go to an interview or interview someone else, it is normal to still be nervous.  Second, it really is generally the best idea to practice something before you do it and not just wing it to see how it goes.  And finally, sometimes things that you think will be torturous, boring and nerve-wracking will turn out to be enjoyable, informative and even fun experiences.  Everyone including the volunteers, teachers, and Easter Seals staff takes something away. Hopefully you will too.

Erin Linskey Johnson, HSHT Program Director, Easter Seals Greater Houston

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