”The first thing that comes to mind is hope.” 

That’s how Brenda describes meeting Linda Bonnar, Director of Communication Pathways, and her team at Pine Tree Society. Brenda’s son Sean has Cerebral Palsy and, until meeting the Communication Pathways team, was struggling to find a way to most effectively and efficiently communicate with others.

“Sean was seven years old, and I was very frustrated at that time,” Brenda recalled. “People didn’t believe Sean was capable of having a fulfilled life. Linda and her team saw his potential right away and they gave us hope. Pine Tree Society’s Communication Pathways department is on the cutting edge and never allows anyone to say ‘No.’ or ‘Sean can’t do that.’ They are masters of thinking outside the box and finding ways for him to do anything he’d like to try.” 

For Sean, the communication solution was teaching him how to use eye gaze assistive technology. 

“Eye gaze is a communication access method for people with significant physical disabilities,” said Linda. “For example, a person with ALS who has progressed to the point where all they have for movement is their eyes. Or someone such as Sean with Cerebral Palsy who is unable to control their extremities enough to access a device.”

“My eyes move, and the camera tracks my movement,” described Sean. “I look at words or letters to spell what I want to say.”  

The device translates his exact words into an audible voice and also transcribes the text. Linda and members of her team work with Sean three times a week, honing his skills and helping him reach goals such as texting and emailing through his device, allowing him even more independence.

“We play language games, practice sentence formation, practice my ability to research and Google topics, and practice controlling my environment with Alexa and Siri,” said Sean. “These skills have allowed me to go to college, have a job with a travel agency, and write accessibility blogs.”

Now 25 years old, Sean is pursuing a degree as a disability specialist. He also presents his story to others through a talk entitled “Sharing His Voice,” which he delivers using his eye gaze device.

“I have talked to seven colleges and universities,” Sean continued. “I talk to their occupational therapy and speech students. In my presentation, I tell them that everyone can talk and communicate. Everyone should have a voice. With assistive technology, this is possible. I like sharing my story and teaching others about the importance of communication, but also how important it is to treat everyone the same. Even if they do things a little differently than you might be used to.”

Most of the educators and students he meets haven’t had any experience with eye gaze technology or seen how it works. So, at his presentations, Sean allows them to gain hands-on experience through trying his device. 

“Sean is our best teacher,” Brenda concluded. “We can all learn from his will power to advocate for himself and others. Technology has opened up so many opportunities for him to prove he is very smart and has a lot to say and contribute to the world. Linda and her team are lifesavers. Pine Tree Society has opened up his life. Sean is now advocating for himself, which is a dream come true.”

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