Eye-tracking device gives student world of possibilities
Last week, Journey Campana moved her eyes and read words printed on a screen just a few feet away.
For most, this would be no big deal. For Journey, reading independently for the first time was quite literally a life-changing moment.
“This opens a world of possibilities for her,” said Allison Green, journey’s teacher and one of two assistive technology team leaders for the Florence One School District.
An eight-grader at Sneed Middle School, Journey was diagnosed with Global Developmental Delay when she was an infant. She has severe physical limitations and is confined to a wheel chair.
With Green looking on, Journey used the eye-tracking technology on her Tobii Dynavox computer to read a simple story. She then used voice-recognition software to speak what she read through computer.
“This is a huge step for her,” said Green. “There were some who did not expect much from Journey and her capabilities. She has waited a long time for this. And now, after reading a single page of instructions, she has the ability to communicate clearly with the world.”
As one would imagine, Journey’s mother, Samantha Evans, is beyond elated.
“It is simply amazing,” said an emotional Evans. “I always knew she had it in her but had to way to express it. And now, to see her read and then for her to confirm it is, well … there really are no words.”
By using her new computer, Journey can not only use her eyes to read and learn, but to type on a keyboard and then speak through the computer’s speech generating software. She can also use the computer’s voice interaction and environmental controls to turn a television, stereo or other connected devices off and on.
All this won’t happen overnight, but her abilities should see marked improvement over time.
Assistive eye-tracking technology like that found on Tobii Dynavox manufactured devices, has been available for many years. They are not cheap, costing thousands of dollars depending on the model purchased. Manufacturers do offer some financial assistance to make them more affordable. Many insurance companies will cover some of the cost and grants are also available.
Journey’s Tobii Dynavox is her own personal device. Her family was able to purchase the device with the help of the Florence One Assistive Technology Department.
“Assistive technology opens lots of doors,” said Florence One Assistive Technology Coordinator Rachell Johnson.”
When Johnson joined the district staff at the beginning of the 2017-18 school year, there were one or two special education students who had eye-gaze devices.
“I saw a lot of opportunity,” she said. “I thought they were missing out. Some parents were not even aware that the technology was available or that their child might be capable of using such a device. I knew from past experience that by working with the parents, the manufacturers, the insurance companies, and through grants that the devices could be available, accessible and affordable. Evans said Journey would not have her Tobii if not for Green and Johnson and the school district.
“It was them 100 percent,” she said. “I tried to get one for Journey a while back but didn’t have the resources or know how. This would not have been possible without them.”
Johnson said the district now has six students who own and use eye-tracking devices. She said one student who used eye-tracking recently graduated. Two elementary school students have moved from special ed classes to regular classes since using their eye-tracking devices. The district is currently in the process of evaluating two more students.
“We are hoping they will be approved by the end of the school year,” said Johnson.
She said the district does own five eye gaze modules. They are about the size of a ballpoint pen, said Johnson, and connect directly to a computer. Three of the five students using the modules are already showing the benefits.
“With a combination of those two devices and current trials of eye gaze technology our numbers may easily grow from six to 11 eye gaze users by the end of the school year,” aid Johnson.
As for Journey, Green said it will take some time for her eyes and her mind to adjust to this big change.
“It can be quite overwhelming, going from nothing to everything,” said Green. “you have to take it slowly.”
She said there are programs on the device that allow the user to ease themselves into the new technology. She also pointed out that eyes can easily get tired from overuse.
While she knows that learning how to properly use her Tobii Dynavox and adjusting to her newfound abilities will be a process, Green did not downplay Journey’s big moment from last week.
“Her life has just completely changed,” said Green.