Nonprofit teaches children with speech problems to talk
By Tony LaRussa
Published: Friday, Aug. 2, 2013, 10:20 p.m.
Daniel Gesalman grinned broadly as he heard the distinctive intro to the classic-rock hit “Under Pressure” by Queen.
The words “I like music” came out of a tiny speaker as he peered at a computer screen and tapped a pair of 3-inch-wide buttons on the tray of his motorized wheelchair. “Great song,” the speaker said.
Although cerebral palsy robbed Gesalman, 18, of Annandale, Va., of his ability to speak, he is learning to use technology to communicate.
Gesalman was among a dozen children who attended the third annual ICAN Talk Summer Camp on Friday at the Crowne Plaza Pittsburgh South hotel in Bethel Park.
The three-day camp sponsored by the Uptown-based nonprofit Augmentative and Alternative Communication Institute is designed to provide nonspeaking and severely speech-impaired children and their parents the chance to interact with other children who use verbal communication devices.
“Many of these children are isolated,” said Katya Hill, executive director and cofounder of the AAC Institute, which receives the bulk of its funding through grants. “While there may be other kids in their schools with disabilities, they often are the only ones using the speech-generating devices to communicate. Our camp puts them in a comfortable environment with other kids who are just like them.”
People who use augmentative and alternative communication devices include people with Lou Gehrig's disease, or ALS, cerebral palsy and autism as well as those who have suffered strokes or brain injuries.
Camp volunteer John Adamic, 22, of Murrysville, who is working on his master's degree in speech language pathology at Duquesne University, said the camp was a great way for him to get hands-on training.
“This is my first real chance to work with students using these devices,” Adamic said as he worked with Gesalman. “I'm having a lot of fun and learning a lot about the field.”
In addition to honing their ability to use high-tech devices that speak for them, campers participated in activities ranging from arts and crafts to a pool party and a chance to try out a cutting-edge “brain computer interface” that allows them to remotely operate a miniature helicopter with their thoughts.
Jonah Barack, 13, of Weston, Conn., whose cerebral palsy prevents him from speaking or easily manipulating a joystick or buttons with his hands, demonstrated how his eye movements can “tap” computer icons on a speech-generating device.
“Jonah is quite smart and has a lot to say,” said his mother, Donna Barack. “Our goal is to provide him with the tools and skills to be as independent as he possibly can so he can go on to college and have a career.”
Barack said her son has experienced the greatest success using a system called Minspeak, which was developed in Pittsburgh by Bruce Baker, founder and president of Semantic Compaction Systems.
Hill hopes to develop programs that focus on specific groups of children, such as girls and young adults.
“We tend to get a lot more boys at our camps, so we'd like to do some special things for the pre-teen and teen girls, who are thinking about self-image as they mature into young women with disabilities,” Hill said.
Tony LaRussa is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7987 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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