Maranatha, a 6-year-old girl with speech disabilities was slowly learning to express words and short phrases with the help of an iPad-based device called an AbleNet Quicktalker Freestyle.
Working with her mother and coached by a speech pathologist, Maranatha was able to select from an array of large speech buttons, divided into situational categories such as “home” and “social.”
Progress was slow but steady, week by week, she had mastered about 10 buttons she could use to reliably express words or ideas. But one day, while her mother was talking to a speech-language pathologist named Adam, something remarkable happened.
Exploring the buttons of social phrases on her device, Maranatha found the phrase “I love you.”
She paused, then hit the button again. And again.
Then she verbalized “Mommy.”
“Mom looked at me and said, ‘She’s never said that before’ with a shocked look on her face,” Adam recalled. “We were both pretty stunned. It was a short but very sweet moment for everyone in the room.”
That moment was made possible thanks to the assistive technology of her speech generating device, one of many tools employed by PROVAIL. The organization started in 1942 as a cerebral palsy group and flowered into a comprehensive provider of assistance for people with disabilities throughout King and Snohomish counties, with services including community based residential services for adults with developmental disabilities and traumatic brain injuries; community-based employment supports and a clinical program that includes speech and occupational therapy along with assistive technology services
Assistive technology is integral to PROVAIL’s vision of lowering barriers and providing new opportunities for people living with disabilities to pursue their life choices, according to Mike Hatzenbeler, the organization’s president and CEO.
Microprocessing devices such as iPads or other tablets play a key role in providing PROVAIL’s clients with opportunities that would otherwise be out of reach.
“For some people, the tablet can help them communicate, while for others it can help them organize tasks, in the workplace for example,” Hatzenbeler says. “Tablets and other devices can also be used to control various items in a person’s environment such as the room lights, television and Alexa devices.”
Another piece of technology that puts a higher quality of life within reach for mobility-challenged clients is powered wheelchairs.
“For people who use both powered wheelchairs and speech-generating devices, there is often a need for different types of switches to help them operate both devices,” Hatzenbeler says. “The chair, the device and the switches all need to be integrated together into a coordinated system that is customized for each individual. They might have one set of switches mounted near their head, which are used to drive the wheelchair. Another switch could be mounted near their leg or foot to activate their speech-generating device, and the device itself might be operated with what’s called ‘eye-gaze,’ meaning it tracks the items on the screen their eyes are focused on.”
Another assistive technology that people without disabilities might take for granted is telehealth.
“Our clinic staff has embraced telehealth as a way to continue to see clients throughout the pandemic, and that has been an unexpected silver lining, with many students making great strides within the supportive environment of their home,” Hatzenbeler says.
Assistive technology can also help PROVAIL staff provide solutions using their own creativity.
“One of our job coaches, Chloe, was working with her client Riley on teaching job skills. Due to the pandemic, they were primarily working remotely, making some aspects of the job difficult,” Hatzenbeler says. “Chloe used her creativity to overcome these challenges by making video tutorials demonstrating the job tasks Riley was working on learning.”
PROVAIL is one of the largest disability-service providers in the state, with clients ranging in age from preschool to senior citizens. The supported employment program serves about 600 clients, with 75% of them employed in community businesses in King and Snohomish counties. The supported-living program supports 90 adults with developmental disabilities and traumatic brain injury to live in the community. And the therapeutic and assistive technology clinic supports 250 children and adults with mobility and communication challenges.
Building a pathway to inclusion, PROVAIL’s work strives to ensure that people with disabilities experience a life of inclusion, choice and equity in their school, work and housing — no matter how complex their support.