‘What did you have for lunch today?’ Until a week back, Bhuvaneshwari would have found it difficult to answer the question which most 12 year olds would respond to with graphic detail. But on Tuesday, Bhuvaneshwari, a child with cerebral palsy and speech impairment, came out with a precise answer – rice and sambar – by avidly pressing her fingers on a touch screen.

Cerebral Palsy (CP) is a disorder that affects movement and mobility; but children with CP often have other difficulties that affect speech, vision and learning abilities. Thanks to touch screen tablets loaded with ‘Avaz’ software that were obtained by the Spastics Society of Tiruchi, children with cerebral palsy and additional speech difficulties, are learning to communicate their needs and wants.

Two devices, sponsored by the Tiruchi Welfare Society, were presented by District Collector Jayashree Muralidharan on Monday.

Not all children in the Spastic Society require the software to communicate, but 40 per cent of them might find it beneficial, feels Shanthakumar, director, Spastic Society of Tiruchi.

“Some children with CP are not capable of speech as there may be a structural abnormality in a speech organ or an area of the brain that controls speech may have been affected,” says Mr. Shanthakumar. Restriction of speech due to defects in the palate or jaw or tongue tie defect, are few possibilities.

While speech therapy may help, the results maybe limited, and alternative and augmentative communication (AAC) such as ‘Avaz’ software is required.

Images, symbols

As children with cerebral palsy may find it difficult to read sentences, they are trained to identify images and symbols to express specific requests, says special educator P. Sridevi.

For instance, images of toothbrush, clothes, food items, assistive devices allow the children to choose what they require while a range of emoticons help them to convey their feelings.

When a child touches a symbol or image, a programmed voice in Tamil or English announces the request aloud to the teacher or parent.

The main menu allows children to choose from options like ‘I want’, ‘I like’, ‘Please buy’, which in turn opens out to a wider list of options.

A few children were used to test the device for a week and found it a fun exercise, says Mr. Shanthakumar. “Usually these children are not able to communicate their needs which leave them frustrated.

They seem to enjoy this method of communication.” Benefits of the software is not confined to children with cerebral palsy, and children with autism or mental retardation can also benefit from it, say therapists.