DUBAI // Seven-year-old Ali al Zamani has been using his iPad for the past six months to tell his teacher and classmates what he did at the weekend with his family. His mother says he likes using it for fun as well as for learning.
"He loves to learn new vocabulary," says Fatima al Alili of her special-needs son. "I did some online research and found that there are a lot of applications for children with speech and language difficulties."
Various types of software and hardware are now available to help people with disabilities communicate better, giving them confidence and enabling them to have the everyday personal interactions that speech enables.
Ali uses the Proloquo2Go programme, which allows him to select from symbols and provides a text-to-speech voice, and his teacher at the Rashid Paediatric Therapy Centre is pleased with how far he has come in the past two years.
"We first started using Makaton [a language programme using speech, signs and symbols] but now he can use the iPad, as well as a touchscreen laptop with Mind Express software, to practise his vocabulary," says Veerle Oben, a speech therapist and augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) project co-ordinator at the centre.
Another popular tool is GoTalk, which is a series of devices that includes message keys and recording abilities that children can use.
Recognising the vital role that AAC has played in helping children with disabilities learn, the centre invited a leading AAC specialist from the US, Dr Caroline Musselwhite, to give a three-day workshop for therapists from special needs centres across Dubai. Parents were also invited to a special evening session to get advice on how computers and other devices can be used as teaching tools.
"We need to be pragmatic as educators and parents by choosing technology well and modelling it in a fun, real and interactive way," says Dr Musselwhite, who has more than 25 years of experience working with students with significant disabilities. "Children today are what we call digital natives, so using technology effectively can allow them to become active learners instead of being passive."
Delphine Watson, who has a seven-year-old son, Rio, attended the special evening session for parents and, like Mrs al Alili, found it reassuring to learn about the different technologies and methods available. "I bought an iPad and I can tell that my son enjoys using it. He loves to listen to his audio books, we download his favourite songs and we can take it out with us."
Camille Matta, the managing director of the AAC group Consort World, supplies a host of assistive technology targeted at children with disabilities in the UAE and across the Middle East. Some of the devices are language-independent, allowing parents to record messages in their native tongue for their child. "Present day technologies can give a child with speech difficulties the confidence to initiate conversation with strangers," Mr Matta says. "We are trying to provide the technology in Arabic for other devices because we believe it is important in this part of the world."
Therapists and providers agree that properly assessing the needs of each student and recommending technology that taps into their potential is key to helping special-needs children develop.
Mohammed Fteiha, the head of the Dubai Autism Centre's speech communication unit, says assistive technology is beneficial for autistic children, as long as it takes into consideration each child individually. "Parents can seek advice to find out whether something is suitable for their child," says Mr Fteiha.
However, some of the technology is expensive, keeping it out of reach of many families; the top-of-the-line GoTalk Express 32, for example, can cost upwards of Dh3,000. "We want to find a way of helping," Mr Matta says. "We would like to create a wish list for the community to link parents with limited incomes to donors who can provide funding."
Among the children who have made significant progress at the Rashid centre is Stephen Gunaratnam, a five-year-old from Sri Lanka who is keen to ask for things with his GoTalk device and likes to participate in group sessions. Tania Dos Santos, his speech therapist, says he has outgrown the need for simpler devices and is now using a more advanced machine with aplomb.
"Stephen is non-verbal but he is very expressive," Ms Dos Santos says. "He started with two switches that would give him options, but he has now moved on to GoTalk 4. He is much more confident, and at times he can even be cheeky."
Some fun applications are available free online and can be used as motivators for a child, Dr Musselwhite says.