Everybody has the right to a voice of their own
It doesn't seem too hard a question but Daniel Montgomery, S2, who has told us through his communication device that he has a pet dog, looks puzzled and doesn't answer for a moment. Then he smiles, scans the device for a few seconds and hits the wheelchair-mounted orange switch by his head a couple of times.
"Noir", the speech-synthesiser intones, and Fiona Catterson, depute headteacher at Renfrewshire's Corseford School, looks delighted. "He's bright. He knows there's a problem with English words for colours on his machine, so he gave it in French.
"Children with cerebral palsy often have a learning difficulty as well as physical problems, but they are all able to communicate if we give them the technology."
One of the first lessons children who come to Corseford are taught is "a reliable yes-no system", she explains. In the absence of speech, this might be symbols on a page, a motion of the head, or an eye movement to left or right. "It's important for them to be able to say `No' if they don't want to do something, or don't want you to do something to them."
Beyond this basic level of communication, technology is needed, which at Corseford and other special schools comes in three levels, says Lindsay Kane, a speech and language therapist - "low, mid and high-tech".
"That ranges from symbols on paper they can point to, through devices that record short messages about the child's activities by parents or teachers, up to voice output communication aids - VOCAs, which is what Daniel uses. We have 17 of our 37 pupils using them."
The voice output is one part of a sophisticated communication system, the others being a child-operated switch, a wheelchair-mounted dynamic screen display and the human brain. Combine these and the young person has a versatile device for talking to people that is beyond anything that could have been done a few years ago - or was often thought necessary for children with speech and language difficulties.
The mid-range technology is limited in what it allows a child to do, says Mrs Catterson. "It's dependent on parents and teachers coming up with ideas for the messages, and then recording them using their voices."
So Corseford School has been taking part in a research project using equipment developed by Aberdeen and Dundee universities, designed to give pupils more control over what they tell their parents.
"It was called `How was school today?' and four of our children took part," says Mrs Catterson. "The aim was to give them more independence; to give them the opportunity to be the same as pupils in mainstream school and elect what to tell their parents - or not."
Barcodes in rooms around the school were set up to send a signal that was picked up by sensors on the pupils' wheelchairs, explains speech and language therapist Mary Duffy.
"If they went to physio or occupational therapy, the sensors would pick up when they went in and came out again. On top of that, the therapist could record messages - such as something exciting happened in physio or the child went swimming or planted a seed in science.
"At the end of the school day, the pupils decided which bits they could take home to tell mum and dad."
As technology to support their pupils changes and develops, and new products become available, the staff at Corseford work together to familiarise themselves and then the children with features, says Mrs Kane.
"Speech and language therapists do formal CPD and we also make ourselves available to show people what to do when they need it," she says. "The more staff who can program the VOCA devices, for instance, and create more of their own vocabulary, the better it is for the children. One boy was giving a talk on Formula 1 and we created a page of symbols and sentences for him to use."
The power of the technology is increasing all the time, says Mrs Catterson. "It is amazing what our children can do now. A few years ago, they wouldn't have been able to do any of this. They would have just sat in their wheelchairs for long periods."
There is, however, one fairly large problem, she says. "When you start talking about technology for additional support needs, you have to add zeros to the cost of everything you buy. But everybody has the right to a voice of their own."
TES Schools Awards winners will be announced next week
The How Was School Today? project, trialled at Corseford School, has received additional funding of pound;285,000 from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to develop the devices further.
The Aberdeen and Dundee university researchers are aiming to support children with a wider range of difficulties through more compact forms of the equipment, perhaps using mobile phones.
More independence is the goal for all users, says Rolf Black from Dundee University's school of computing. "The current system requires teachers to be involved in helping the children enter their stories into the device. We'll be looking at how this can be made more automatic, to simplify and minimise the input from the teacher."