Introducing Assistive Technology to Caregivers   

Parenting is a challenging endeavour. Parents or caregivers of a child with disabilities must manage the physical and emotional needs of the child, as well as their own emotional needs.

There are devices and aids that can help improve the quality of life for persons with disabilities.  Known collectively as “Assistive Technology” (AT), these devices and aids – ranging from modified toys to alternative and augmentative communication (AAC) apps – can help persons with disabilities improve or maintain their functional capabilities.

A workshop supported by POSB, and held on 18 January 2019 at the Enabling Village introduced AT to caregivers of persons with disabilities. Conducted by Deborah Yong, a Speech Language Therapist and AT Professional from SPD – a VWO that serves people with disabilities, the workshop was attended by 10 caregivers, whose care recipients ranged from toddlers to young working adults.

Most of the attendees were already using some form of AT, and were keen to learn new strategies and systems to further support their care recipients’ development. A participant’s son was “addicted” to surfing the internet on the iPad, and he wanted to find a way to deal with this problem while still being able to help his son with digital devices.

Improving communication

As communication was a key concern of many caregivers, the workshop touched on the use of AAC systems. This involves using aids to augment a person’s verbal speech or writing capabilities.

The Little Step-by-Step is a device that helps a person with speech impediments to participate in group activities. The device contains up to three consecutive sentences which can be read out at the touch of a button.  They can be used to participate in social routines (e.g. “Hello, my name is XX. How are you?”), or to gain attention (e.g. “I have something to say.”). They can also be used in conjunction with a communication board – which contains rows of symbols and text to help children express themselves.

“Some children have difficulties initiating (a discussion). They can’t raise (their) hands, so they can use the device to let people know they have something to say. The phrases can be personalised to the child’s needs,” explained Ms Yong.

However, AAC is not just about devices. It encompasses a wider system that employs strategies, techniques and skills to support the child. Some key strategies include:

  1. Give the person using the AAC time to generate the message
  2. The AAC device is the voice of the user and should not be taken away
  3. Speak directly to the person who uses the AAC, and not to the person accompanying them
  4. Use the AAC system when communicating with the person who uses AAC, so that he/she will get used to using AAC to communicate with others

Electronics Aids to Daily Living (EADLs)

Participants were also introduced to devices that help children play; an important activity for their learning. These include toys that have been modified so that a child with a disability is able to use them e.g. a toy car with a switch connected to it, or a xylophone which is motion-activated.

“With any kind of movement, the child can activate the instrument and join in a group activity. And this is important, as many children we see do not actively participate in their various environments,” said Ms Yong.  She shared that Engineering Good, a social enterprise, provides hands-on workshops for individuals and groups who are interested in toy adaptation.

AT for learning and reading

To assist children with learning, there are AT solutions that help with word prediction, spell checks and alternative pencils.  There are also adapted books that feature symbols that correspond to a child’s AAC system.

“Literacy is very important. If they can do that, they can do many things because many jobs can be done online today,” said Ms Yong.

It is important for persons with disabilities to effectively operate devices like tablets to communicate and learn.  The iPad offers a feature known as “Guided Access”, which restricts the use of the device to just the communication app (e.g. ACC app/learning app). This ensures that the user is not distracted by other applications. Other iPad features include touch accommodations that help users who do not have precise touch, or a speech function that reads out loud text from the device.

Finding the right solution

Many caregivers may feel the pressure to buy the latest AT product that comes on the market. Ms Yong advised that they should first assess their care recipients’ needs before deciding which AT product works best. They can also consult their occupational therapist or speech-language therapist.

“Start by considering the human, and his or her strengths and weaknesses. Think about the activity that the child needs to do; whether its school-related or what they need to do in their job. Only then do you look at what AT is suitable.  There are many factors to consider to see if an AT is a good fit for the child,” she said.

Several grants, including the Assistive Technology Fund (ATF) administered by SG Enable, can help defray the cost of acquiring AT.

The workshop participants had positive feedback and found the workshop relevant to their needs.