Freedom of speech

Chris Stevens sees how the national Communication Aids Project is making adifference to children with communication difficulties

Nicola is a pupil in a special school. She has a severe physical disability and cannot speak. Until she was 12, she communicated entirely by facial expression and body language and it was assumed she also had severe learning disabilities. Things were done for Nicola. She was fed, toileted and involved in activities without being first asked about her preferences and wishes.

When she was 12, things changed. A multi-disciplinary team was asked to assess her communication needs and suggest any technology that might help her. They recommended buying an Orac (a portable battery communication aid which uses a keyboard to produce sythesised speech) mounted on her wheelchair which would allow her to use eight pre-programmed messages. She took to it like the proverbial duck to water and soon moved on to more complex equipment. She now speaks fluently and wittily using a Delta Talker that cost pound;7,000.

The cost meant that her LEA could not afford to buy it and it had to be purchased through a charitable organisation. Using this equipment she can say what she likes and dislikes, what she wants to do and when she wants to do it. Her new found voice has transformed her into an active participant in learning and society.

The Communication Aids Project (CAP), funded by the Department for Education and Skills and managed on its behalf by Becta (British Educational Communications and Technology Agency), will be running over the next two years to support LEAs and schools in providing assistive technology for pupils like Nicola. Often people closest to a child are not fully aware of the difference a communication aid can make. The project will not only provide aids but also assessment of individual needs and training in how to use the technology provided Working through six co-ordinating CAP centres we will link to LEA teams, and to schools and individuals, who have the necessary expertise. These individuals and multi-disciplinary teams will become CAP contacts.

The CAP project is much more than an exercise in putting a relatively modest amount of extra funding into the system. It will identify good practice in providing technology for pupils who have spoken or written communication difficulties wherever it exists. It will support that good practice and highlight its strengths and benefits so that other schools and LEAs can tap into it.

Partnerships are key to the success of the project. CAP cannot do it all. Where pupils are referred to CAP for help, referrals and assessments will need to include clear evidence of the commitment from all those identified - child, parent, school, LEA and other support services.

For example, a referral may show that the child has been assessed by an LEA multi-disciplinary team which has decided she needs a piece of technology. This assessment will be checked, scrutinised against CAP criteria and agreed by one of the centres. CAP then purchases the kit and could additionally pay the LEA team for some training. Commercial suppliers will work with CAP to ensure equipment gets to pupils quickly and efficiently. CAP contacts linking with providers will bring teachers and carers up to speed.

This is a new approach to support, and enhance, a system that has been around for quite some time. The pupils will have all the elements to ensure the equipment works for them and the LEA has funds left to spend on other pupils. CAP funding is not there to replace LEAs' current spend but rather to enhance it. It will enable limited resources to be spent on as many pupils as possible.

At the end of the project, in 2004, we hope CAP will have made a major contribution to supporting children with communication difficulties. Technology, however, is just one part of the equation. It needs to be matched with assessment and training to develop expertise, understanding and confidence. That way more children like Nicola will find their voice.

Chris Stevens is head of special needs and inclusion at Becta

Communication

What do we mean by communication difficulties?

Communication is a broad term: it covers the ability to receive and understand oral and written information, as well as the ability to convey information by words, signs or writing.

A number of people have difficulties in one or more of these areas.

Making a referral

CAP will support the provision of technology-based aids to pupils of school age in England. However, please remember when applying for support that CAP is designed to add value to the range of provisions being made or proposed. Therefore, all referrals should demonstrate that CAP is not the only funder, and that schools, LEAs, parents and pupils all play their part, to make any provision work.

Funding

The Communication Aids Project will run over two years and involves pound;10 million provided by the DFES. It is intended to augment LEA and school funding by providing additional equipment and technology for pupils who have significant communication difficulties. It does not, however, relieve LEAs and schools of their respective obligations in terms of identifying and meeting individual needs.

Who qualifies?

To qualify for support, a pupil must meet the following criteria. He or she must:

* be able to demonstrate that a communication difficulty has been identified

* be receiving education in a maintained school or non-maintained special school, or educated otherwise

* show evidence that the school or LEA has taken some measures to meet their communication needs

CAP centres

* ACE Centre Advisory Trust - Oxford

* Cenmac and The Wolfson Centre, London

* The Wolfson Centre

SCOPE, London

DCCAP (Batod and Deafax)

To contact CAP Write to: CAP Administrator, Becta, Milburn Hill Road, Science Park, Coventry CV4 7JJ

Tel: 024 7684 7173

Website: http:cap.becta.org.uk

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