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Millcreek Journal

Nonverbal doesn’t mean noncapable

Nov 07, 2023 01:12PM ● By Julie Slama

The Opportunity Foundation’s Director of Training Ron Williams and Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind’s outreach teacher of the visually impaired Madelyn Stafford help Jordan Valley’s Klaus Sloan communicate using EagleEyes technology. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

Using a spoon, riding a tricycle, exploring on the playground, even learning to do a somersault, may be typical traits for youngsters, but not for Klaus Sloan.

Like many of his peers, Klaus attends preschool four mornings per week. There are bright toys, a colorful rug and innovative games to play.

However, Klaus was born with numerous fragile, complex medical needs. He sits in his wheelchair with a bright purple neck support pillow as he is unable to hold his head up on his own. Klaus is nonverbal, but according to his teachers, he wants to communicate and express his thoughts the same as any 4year old.

Klaus attends Jordan Valley’s preschool, which helps 3- to 5-year-old students receive severe special education services. His class has about 80% of the students receiving special education services; the other 20% are peer models, said his teacher Rylee Barstow.

“It’s really awesome and a unique part of our programming in Canyons School District,” she said.

After his teacher and Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind’s outreach teacher of the visually impaired Madelyn Stafford tried several adaptions for Klaus, Stafford reached out to Debbie Inkley, the executive director of The Opportunity Foundation of America, to see if EagleEyes would be a possibility for Klaus.

EagleEyes is different than many communication devices since it doesn’t use eye tracking.

“These kids don’t have purposeful head movement; their heads go either right or left or down to their chin, so they’re unable to use their eyes to track,” Inkley said. 

The Opportunity Foundation’s Director of Training Ron Williams, who was helping Klaus with his third 30-minute session, said the biggest difference between EagleEyes and other technologies is that there isn’t an infrared camera that may be disrupted when students flail and would need to be recalibrated to continue. 

“EagleEyes captures it externally, so it really embraces their disability and allows them to do what they got to do,” he said. “It’s really forgiving if they’re a mover and a shaker, and other technology isn’t quite as sturdy.”

For the adaption to work, electrodes are placed above and below the student’s dominant eye and on both temples. They pick up the way the cornea and retina rotate in the eye socket and magnifies the electrical signal of the eye 10,000 times, converting it from the eye movement to a mouse cursor, Inkley said. 

The result is when Klaus has the electrodes placed in position, the mouse cursor follows the location where Klaus is looking at the screen. This way, he can focus his eyes to a response—and he is able to communicate.

While EagleEyes is relatively new to Klaus, he showed that he could respond during a computer educational activity to a particular quadrant on the screen.

“Through this activity, he is able to understand, focus his eyesight and learn cause and effect. Once the cursor hits the correct icon, it will continue. Once he’s mastered cause and effect, he absorbs this knowledge that his eyes are a tool and they’re making it happen,” Williams said.

The educational story was accompanied with a fun rhythmic beat, to which he responded well; his teachers say Klaus loves music. They noted some of his response times, which were immediate to several seconds, were faster than the last time he used EagleEyes.

“What’s lovely about EagleEyes is it really gives us real-time feedback as to how students see, how they move their eyes,” Williams said.

Stafford said that information is invaluable.

“When we know how he is using his eyes, we can help him train to use his eyes a little bit more. Then, we can take that to the classroom. As the vision teacher, I can educate everybody on what is he doing and how can they help with his modification and accommodations,” said Stafford, who also provides other modified activities in his individualized educational plan.

Inkley has been pleased with Klaus’ initial response.

“This particular technology is just incredible for Klaus because there is really nothing else out there that can help a student like this does,” she said.

Barstow, who said they’ve tried adaptive switches, visual cues, sound cues, tactile cues and other methods, said this is the first adaption that has helped him consistently be successful. 

“For almost a year and a half now, we’ve just been working really hard trying to find a way where he’s able to communicate and we see intention from him,” she said. “The big difference with EagleEyes is that we are able to see that he is understanding and he’s doing things intentionally and he wants to communicate. It’s just been finding the right device and adaptation to help him do that.”

About 525 devices are in use in homes and schools across the United States, about 50 of those are in Utah. At Jordan Valley, four students, including Klaus, use EagleEyes.

Usually, candidates for the device are older than age 4, Stafford said.

“It’s a very complex system,” she said. “You want to try the tactile, the visual, the more low-tech methods first, because they’re more accessible. EagleEyes can help Klaus with CVI, cortical visual impairment, and help those eye muscles start working so then, maybe he can use those visual cards.”

In her classroom, Barstow teaches students who range from speech language impairment to autism and Down syndrome. Klaus is pulled out of his classroom to work with EagleEyes in a more controlled, quiet environment so he can concentrate.

“These kiddos are dependent on everything from somebody else for them to just sustain life. What’s amazing about EagleEyes is that interaction is the first time where they have 100% independence. They make it happen. It’s his first form of feeling empowered,” Williams said.

If Klaus continues to be able to make choices correctly, the team believes he may respond well to communicating through personalized programming.

“We would create an activity with buttons on the screen, maybe a picture of Mom or of Dad or a picture of brother or sister, and we would ask him to click on say, his sister. Then we have that understanding that he’s verbally understanding what we’re saying and he’s making the right choice. It just builds confidence, his and ours, that he’s understanding and making an actual choice,” Williams said.

What Klaus’ timeline to do that is anyone’s guess.

“Some of our kids never get there. They just don’t get it. But some of our kids grasp it in weeks,” Williams said.

Stafford is optimistic.

“Klaus has just been this really amazing student that we’re trying to figure out his puzzle pieces. We have an amazing team, and we keep trying 100,000 things. EagleEyes is this awesome technology that we’re able to bring him to right now, but what is all going to collectively be Klaus’ way of communicating? To even see some reaction was the biggest we’ve seen all year and Rylee’s had him since last year. She’s tried and we’ve tried things all year and we’ve gotten no reaction. So, the sheer fact that he let these electrodes be on his face and he can respond with his eyes is a big win. We are excited he is engaged and he’s showing that he understands cause and effect. He’s not just that passenger letting life happen to him. He’s showing that he wants to be a part of that life. That’s why we’re all here. We know these students are capable. We just have to figure out what those puzzle pieces are.”  λ