Clutching an iPad, three-year-old Ryan hurries along the corridor of Rossmar Special School in Limavady.
He peels his coat and bag from his back and, standing on his tip toes, hooks them over the peg above his picture in the cloakroom. He runs into the room welcoming him with bright colours and sits at the red table where he sets up the iPad.
Shifting in his seat, leaning in, Ryan hears his teacher ask: “What is the weather like today?”
Not hesitating, Ryan presses a number of buttons in succession before resting his hands on his lap. He gazes at Nuala, the teacher, and smiles as a voice from the iPad says: “Today it is cloudy and sunny and cold.”
The iPad has given Ryan a voice, something the soon-to-be four-year-old didn’t have a month ago, but that’s all changed because of what Rossmar principal, Brian McLaughlin, says is “a simple concept, but one that has revolutionised the lives of these children”.
Ryan is one of four children - the others aged 4, 9 and 15 - at Rossmar trialling a pilot project using the technology ‘Proloquo2Go’. It is an augmentative and alternative communication system that is symbol-supported - a software programme that, when downloaded onto an iPad, serves as the user’s voice when communicating to others.
“Communication is something we all take for granted, but imagine not being able to tell someone you’re hungry, you’re in pain, you need something, you want something. That is what is was like for these kids,” says Mr McLaughlin.
“To find this very simple application - which basically and literally gives them a voice and allows them to express their needs, their feelings, their wants, their desires; let’s them express their joy, their happiness their sadness, something we all take for granted - well, we are very excited in the school that we’ve found this.”
Nuala McNeil, head of the Primary Department at Rossmar, says: “Before, they would have used makaton, which is fine in school where everyone understands it but, generally, in the community, people don’t understand it and, when out and about, people didn’t understand what they were trying to sign, which was frustrating.
“This is an augmentative speech device and it has really opened up the world for these children. It has given these children a voice.
“It has also strengthened the home-school bond. We work very closely with our children anyway, but, say, with a mainstream child and they’re able to go home and tell their parent what they did at school or, go into school and explain what they did at home, these children use the iPad for that.”
Jill Graham’s four-year-old son, Joel, is using the programme. She saw the benefits almost as soon as Joel began using it.
“Joel isn’t able to vocalise all that’s going on in his head at times so the iPad gives him a way of trying to communicate, and it really allows Joel and us, as a family, to have a better relationship with school.
“He’s able to share his news every day and he is able to share in class circle time what he has been doing at the weekend as well,” says Jill.
“Joel was able to use mackaton sign language but that was quite restrictive in terms of making all the signs with his hands and he only knew a number of signs so that was hard.
“But, with the iPad, everyone understands that and it’s something we can use at home. Joel loves to come home and share with us and tell us what he did during the day. Even at the dinner table he can tell us what he wants rather than us having to guess with his gestures.”
Nuala is determined the technology will continue to be used in the school.
“This will run, without a doubt it will run,” she said. “The challenge is the cost of the iPads but we have been very lucky with some fantastic fundraising that has been done for the school and we have been able to use that.
“Communication is such an important aspect of everybody’s life and, for these children, that has opened all that up for them.”
Mr McLaughlin agrees.
“It has only been going for a month but, already, we can see extensive application for it right throughout the school for all kids who have communication difficulties,” he said.
“If you talk to the staff, they will tell you how much it has opened up the lives of the youngsters, in terms of their communication between home and school and being able to tell us what they do, and being able to go home and tell mum and dad what has gone on during the day. The children can now go home and bring up images of what they’ve being doing.
“And, imagine being the mum of a young child and having the opportunity to talk and have that communication opened up to you for the first time in four or five years?
“For one child here, a 15-year-old - who never before had a clear defined means of communication - it’s incredible.
“It is absolutely life changing for these children.”
Mr McLaughlin added: “We look forward to a very bright future for all our children at Rossmar and to giving them the voice that we take for granted and to them which, until now, has been denied.”
With the last word, Ryan touches the iPad screen, smiles and waves as he says ‘goodbye’.