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Assistive technology helps foster independence in special needs people.

As six-year-old Zahra Abdul Nasar finishes eating her mid-morning snack, she turns to her teacher and tells her "it's yummy".

Born with hereditary spastic paraparesis, Zahra cannot talk. But with the use of assistive technology, she now has a voice.

Assistive technology is an umbrella term that includes assistive, adaptive and rehabilitative devices for people with disabilities. It also includes the process used in selecting, locating and using technologies as an aid in communication and learning.

At Dubai's Al Noor Training Centre, Zahra is one of more than 270 students communicating with her peers and elders using assistive technology.

Although this is not a new concept, the use of assistive technology in the classroom and home is still burgeoning in the Middle East.

But for young Zahra, its introduction to her life has seen her developmental skills burgeon.

Earlier, she would be left frustrated and upset, struggling to effectively communicate her needs to her peers, family and teachers. Now, with her iPad firmly placed in front of her, she is in control.

Referred to as an Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) approach, Zahra is able to pick and choose from a picture menu on the screen in front of her.

If she wants to say hello to someone, she simply touches the 'say hello' picture menu on the screen.

And if she's feeling a little thirsty after eating lunch, one press of the 'drink' button will allow her teacher to provide her with some water to quench that thirst.

Deepika Gopalarao, Head of the Department for Communication, Language and Speech at the Centre, said her students have flourished since the centre officially opened its dedicated Assistive Technology department in September last year.

"It has brought about so many changes in my students. The use of this technology helps foster a child's independence."

For the students at the centre who range from 3 to 18-year-olds and host an array of disabilities, the possibilities are endless.

A lack of speech, sound or mobility no longer holds them back.

They can use assistive technology tools which recognise speech to execute an action, e-books to eliminate page turning, and portable eye-gaze devices that are powered by blinks to select tasks and games on the computer.

"These students have control of their environment, and they don't have to rely on others around them all the time. That is the beauty of assistive technology."

Nurturing independence

Twenty three-year-old Kevin Varghese is described as one of the centre's "heroes". Though students usually graduate at 18, some are able to stay at the centre after being given special permission.

As he greets Khaleej Times with a big smile from his motorised wheelchair, Kevin's teacher begins fitting his chair with a device called a signal switch.

The multifaceted switch can be used by the most profoundly challenged or neurologically impaired individuals. By picking up on a slight touch with only 10 grams of force behind it, Kevin is able to use his head to select a menu on the screen in front of his.

Showcasing his 10 pin bowling skills through an interactive computer game, Kevin - who has cerebral palsy - manages to get a strike. And as his teacher promises him a fish curry for lunch for his winning efforts, his smile grows even bigger.

"For Kevin, he can now access things like YouTube and watch what he likes, without having to rely on others to select the videos for him. He's a big fan of Malayalam films," his teacher says.

Age of technology

In a world where technology is dominant, its potential is ever growing.

Speaking to Khaleej Times, Isphana Al Khadib, Director of Al Noor Training Centre, said though technology has been harnessed for the disabled in many parts of the world, the Middle East is still lagging.

"Technology is not new in this part of the world but the focus on assistive technology is. So much is being done in this area now though and the government is putting so much emphasis on assistive technology programmes. It is so promising."

Referring to communication as a "two-way process", Al Khadib said with the introduction of assistive technology in their everyday lives, students at the Centre can now successfully communicate with their peers.

"Because of this, we see a huge difference in behaviours. Children are no longer frustrated because they have been given a tool to communicate."

On November 12 and 13 this year, Al Noor Training Centre will organise the 'Al Noor Assistive Tech-X 2015'.

The two-day expo is dedicated to creating awareness on how assistive technology can improve functional capabilities of individuals with special needs.

Featuring cutting-edge products and services, demonstrations, workshops, seminars and fun activities, Al Khadib said the event will highlight the role of assistive technology in empowering a child with disabilities to reach their highest potential.

"The use of this technology in the classroom taps the potential of each individual. This will be our first event and we hope it won't be the last. With technology constantly updating, we hope to host two such events each year and build up strong awareness about the role of assistive technology in a child's self-development."

The Al Noor Assistive Tech-X 2015 will be held at Anisa - Al Noor Indoor Sports Auditorium, Dubai.

As technology continues to adapt in this ever changing world, its potential in providing a child with special needs the skills to adapt in a mainstream world is also limitless. a

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Publication:Khaleej Times (Dubai, United Arab Emirates)
Date:Oct 1, 2015
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