Fam­ily char­ity Nor­wood is us­ing ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy to change lives

The Jewish Chronicle - - NEWS - BY SI­MON ROCKER

“GO GABS, splat Mummy!” urges Pauline Bardon as her daugh­ter takes aim with a cus­tard pie.

Gabriella, her fair hair tied at the back, fo­cuses hard, be­fore land­ing a di­rect hit on the tar­get — her mother.

It is just a vir­tual mis­sile, though, pro­jected at a photo on a com­puter screen. Gabriella may be play­ing a game, but it is one with a se­ri­ous ed­u­ca­tional pur­pose.

The 22-year-old from Stan­more, Mid­dle­sex, has Rett syn­drome, a neu­ro­log­i­cal con­di­tion that has left her with se­vere learn­ing and phys­i­cal dif­fi­cul­ties. She does not speak or use her hands.

“Although she is not paral­ysed, she doesn’t want to use her hands,” her mother ex­plained. “She gets up­set at be­ing made to use them.”

While she can­not press a but­ton, she can still use a com­puter — by look­ing at it. Through eye-gaze soft­ware that tracks and re­sponds to the move­ment of her eyes with an in­frared beam, Gabriella has the means to com­mu­ni­cate with the out­side world.

“It’s been great for us to have this,” Mrs Bardon said. “It’s made a huge dif­fer­ence to her.”

Gabriella was first given ac­cess to the sys­tem last year by fam­ily char­ity Nor­wood, and since then she has made steady progress. At the fur­ther ed­u­ca­tion col­lege where she was learn­ing life skills, staff were “blown away”, Mrs Bardon said.

“They re­alised that she knows more than they thought she knew. It has been a real eye-opener for them. I thought it would take a cou­ple of years to use it.”

Throw­ing dig­i­tal cus­tard pies and play­ing other games has helped to fa­mil­iarise Gabriella with the tech­nol­ogy. “The goal is to move on and teach her sym­bols so that she can tell us what she wants,” her mother said. Learn­ing to use as­sis­tive tech­nol­ogy; and ( Rett syn­drome suf­ferer Gabriella Bardon and her mother, Pauline

Gabriella is now learn­ing to get to grips with a newly in­stalled pro­gram that will en­able her to give “yes” or “no” re­sponses on screen to ques­tions peo­ple ask her, plus a menu with a choice of two drinks.

Be­fore, to un­der­stand what she wanted, peo­ple would have to in­ter­pret her ex­pres­sions or fol­low where her eyes pointed.

In or­der to use the com­puter, Gabriella’s mother has had to wheel her into the kitchen, where it is set up on a ta­ble. “It’s a cum­ber­some sys­tem,” Mrs Bardon said. “We have been look­ing for a smaller, por­ta­ble sys­tem which can be at­tached to her wheel­chair, so she can use it wher­ever she goes.”

A top-of-the-range eye-gaze sys­tem costs in the re­gion of £11,000 — but the fam­ily were turned down when they ap­plied for a gov­ern­ment grant.

Mrs Bardon ad­mits it was “some­thing of a dis­ap­point­ment. We have just bought a cheaper tablet al­ter­na­tive and with the help of Nor­wood have cob­bled to­gether a sys­tem for her.”

Although it might not be as pow­er­ful as the more ex­pen­sive model, Gabriella will be able to take ad­van­tage of the new de­vice once it is mounted on her wheel­chair.

“It’s early days yet,” Mrs Bardon said. “We’re hope­ful we’re on the right road to al­low her to com­mu­ni­cate.”

Through eye-gaze, other Nor­wood ben­e­fi­cia­ries can now open the door of their room, turn on the tele­vi­sion, or Skype fam­ily and friends.

As­sis­tive tech­nol­ogy, or AT, has come some way since Stephen Hawk­ing’s com­puter-gen­er­ated voice en­abled one of the world’s great­est minds to speak.

In­side the Pears spe­cial re­source unit at the Jewish Com­mu­nity Sec­ondary School (JCoSS) in East Bar­net is a replica flat with a bed­room, kitchen and lounge. It is where Nor­wood demon­strates the gad­getry to its staff and those from other or­gan­i­sa­tions.

It is also where the char­ity car­ries out assess­ments of users to see if they can ben­e­fit from AT.

Nor­wood’s AT man­ager Joanne Sur­ridge ex­plained: “An in-depth as­sess­ment can take two or three hours and can get quite in­tense. This is a more com­fort­able en­vi­ron­ment.

“Fam­i­lies may not know of the range of equip­ment that could sup­port them and oth­er­wise strug­gle. We are here to give them an in­sight into that equip­ment and how it could help them.”

Their clients range from nurs­eryage chil­dren to 80-year-old res­i­dents of Ravenswood, the residential vil­lage run by Nor­wood in Berk­shire.

AT sup­port of­fi­cer Jay Tuck said: “There are plenty of peo­ple with no in­de­pen­dent move­ment at all. We have a man who is in his 70s who can now turn on a light or the telly in his room.”

A wire­less switch has been fit­ted to the pen­sioner’s wheel­chair be­hind his head, which he can ac­ti­vate by lean­ing back­wards. He can also use it to choose mu­sic and video on a lap­top.

So­phis­ti­cated cen­sors are another type of tech­nol­ogy en­abling vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple to be mon­i­tored dur­ing the night with­out car­ers hav­ing to en­ter their room to check on them.

A cen­sor can de­tect if some­one has fallen out of bed or wan­dered off, for ex­am­ple. In one case, a woman slipped and knocked her head but the alarm alerted staff, and an am­bu­lance was swiftly on the scene.

“You can also set one on de­lay so they have time get up and go to the loo,” said Mr Tuck. “But if they are not back in bed in 10 min­utes, that will set off the alarm.”

Peo­ple who can­not man­age to use a key can have the op­tion of a fin­ger­print sys­tem. But Nor­wood was once faced with the one-in-a-mil­lion in­stance of a man who did not have fin­ger­prints. To com­pli­cate mat­ters, he also had mem­ory prob­lems, so an elec­tronic fob might have been use­less by it­self if he could not re­mem­ber what it was for. The char­ity had to find a sym­bol that would re­mind him to use his fob.

“We want to open peo­ple’s eyes to what is avail­able,” said Ms Stur­ridge. “The main point is to un­der­stand who you are sup­port­ing and what they need. We try to match the app to the per­son.

“It en­ables them to take con­trol over some el­e­ments of their lives and do some­thing which pre­vi­ously they couldn’t.”


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