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SHACHAR Students Present their Final History & Geography of Israel Projects

30 June, 2016

Like thousands of other school children in Israel, and indeed around the world, the children in the Augmentative and Alternative Communications (AAC) class of ALYN Hospital's SHACHAR Rehabilitation Educational Medical Day Care Center learn about the history and geography of their homeland. Similarly, just like other Israeli school children, at the end of the year the students create and present their final projects using computers.

However, unlike other Israeli children, the students in the AAC class don't use their fingers to type on a keyboard, and they don't use their hands to control a mouse. Instead, they are learning to use their eyes.

Congenital diseases, in particular muscular diseases, and tragic road accidents have left these children mostly paralyzed. All of the children in the AAC class require a ventilator for breathing assistance, and all have very limited ability to communicate through speech.

Until recently, children like those in the AAC class could anticipate a life locked inside their own bodies, with no ability to express themselves – neither through verbal communication nor through sign language. Naturally, children who cannot interact with the world around them become developmentally stunted, even when they are otherwise cognitively functional.

What's worse, these children are often fully aware of their physical condition and they can become immensely psychologically distressed at not being able to express their feelings and emotional needs.

Maya, a Speech Therapist in SHACHAR who specializes in AAC devices, offers a glimpse into the world of the children she treats, "While you might be able to communicate some of your physical needs without speech - like pointing to a ball to indicate that you want to play - how would you express your emotions? How would you let someone know that you want to be hugged, if you couldn't move or speak?"

That's where ALYN Hospital's AAC class steps in. With the advent of modern technology, a world of possibilities has opened up for children dealing with such medical conditions.

AAC stands for Augmentative and Alternative Communications, and includes a wide range of assistive technology devices and techniques that enable people with limited speech to express themselves and interact with their social environment.

The children in the AAC class learn and practice using eye-gaze technology - that is, how to control a computer with the eyes - in the much the same way that other children learn and practice how to read and write.

"Controlling a computer with the eyes is not easy," explained their teacher, Esther. "Just like typing with the fingers, the child needs to learn the concept of cause and effect, not to mention being able to concentrate and focus his or her gaze for an extended period of time."

Irena, the Principle of ALYN's School, remarked, "This year's final project is not only an opportunity to learn about the history and geography of Israel, but is also a way to encourage the children to use the eye-gaze technology skills that they are learning."

Each student used the skills they had been learning in the AAC class to search the internet for answers to a series of questions about one of five areas in Israel - Jerusalem, Eilat, Akko, the Sea of Galilee, and the Hermon. With the help of their teacher, therapists and aids, they were able to successfully find the answers, which were then put on displays and shared with their parents and other visitors during the end-of-the-year party.