He can't talk but he tells a ripping good yarn

A specialist school is helping children with cerebral palsy to improve their communication skills by hooking them up to the Net.

Martin sits at the computer screen and shows me his story: it is about family, football and going to the pub. When I feign shock about the pub, the teenager laughs uproariously.

Martin has cerebral palsy. He can hardly use his voice, and has little control of his limbs. But he is a good communicator, being the proud owner of a "good yes" - a strong nod of his head to signify agreement. This is the basis for all his face-to-face dealings with people. Now it is helping him to use computers to reach a wider audience.

Martin attends Meldreth Manor School in Hertfordshire, a residential school run by the cerebral palsy charity Scope. It is expert in helping youngsters to find a way to express themselves, even though their communication may consist of no more than a blink or a movement of the tongue. Where appropriate, technology is called upon to help.

The latest move has been to get pupils on to the Internet. When the headmaster, David Banes, announced this plan last year at a computer show, he didn't get much support. "People told me it wasn't worth it," he says, "but we are rather obstinate here. The Internet is a great leveller - you can make friends without having to focus on your disabilities."

Thanks to this stubbornness, a delighted bunch of kids are now using the Net to send news to their families, make friends around the world, and check the latest football results.

This is not a miracle brought about by modern technology, but the result of a lot of hard work by pupils and teachers. For Martin and his school friends, the journey to reach the superhighway can be a long one.

Martin may have brought his "good yes" to answer questions with, but it was of limited use, because he had no way of indicating what the questions should be about.

His first year was spent mastering Rebus, a pictorial language that helps people who have difficulty with speech, writing or words.

Martin's personalised Rebus communication board, a piece of card containing the symbols he uses most, accompanies him everywhere. By looking at a section of the board, he assists people to home in on the right group of symbols, then he nods in agreement when the exact one he wants is chosen. It is a simple, but remarkably effective system. Now Martin is using an adapted version on a computer.

The entire collection of 3500 Rebus symbols lives on a PC, courtesy of software called Working With Symbols. Another program, Switch Clicker, displays a selection of these in a screen-based grid. The squares in the grid are automatically highlighted one after another. The trick is to choose a symbol by freezing the highlight on a particular square.

For most at Meldreth Manor, using a mouse is out of the question, which means they are treated to much more fascinating gizmos. A range of devices, collectively labelled switches, allows each child to use his or her own way of saying "yes" to control the computer. Some switches are driven by raising an eyebrow, some by blinking, and Martin's is strapped to his chest, so that when he nods, his chin clicks the switch, and a choice is made on the screen.

With the help of his language therapist, Wendy, Martin can construct a story, see it printed in symbols and words; and, thanks to voice synthesis software, he can listen to it, too.

Once a child has got this far, a teacher can then use Working With Symbols to turn the story into straight text, pour it into an e-mail, and send it around the world.

As Martin finishes his story, his classmates David and Tim work with their headmaster on the Net. David talks a lot and Tim laughs at his jokes. They listen to their new e-mail - it is converted to Rebus and read out - and visit some favourite Web sites (reggae music and yet more football). The school has its own Web pages, which are linked to the new Scope site, but as the headmaster says, "They would much rather visit the Bob Marley home page than read about wheelchairs."

"Who is the worst person in the school at using the Internet?" he asks. "You," replies David assuredly. He and his friends understand how the Net works, thanks to some down-to-earth teaching which could usefully be adopted elsewhere.

("Let's link these two PCs here together with this wire so we can send messages between them. Now, how far could a wire stretch between computers? All the way around the world if we used the phone line as a wire.")

But surfing the Web still calls for a helper to interpret what is happening, because of a couple of technical drawbacks. First, says Mr Banes, there is no easy way to extract text from a Web page, so the content can't be converted to Rebus and read out. And as yet there is no software that highlights all the "hotspots" on a page in turn, so that someone using a switch can make a selection.

Because attention spans are usually quite short, the school is considering installing an ISDN line to keep delays to a minimum. It has invested in standard-issue PCs: although hardware could be adapted, say, to fit flat on to a wheelchair, the idea is to equip the children to use any machine.

But the most important idea, says Mr Banes, is Never Trust The Computer. "We teach the children not to be overly dependent on technology. You always need low-tech to support the hi-tech in case the computer breaks down."

Mr Banes's next plan is to explore virtual reality, and he is very excited by its potential. "Some people say that these kids shouldn't experience it, because it would be too confusing," he says. "But it allows them to experience things that are otherwise out of the question - whether it is skiing down a mountain, or moving through a fantasy world using their wheelchair as a spacecraft. It is a new kind of learning environment."

The Net has been instructive in all kinds of ways. "Some new friends in California have been telling the kids about helper dogs," says Mr Banes. "If you drop things, the dog picks them up for you, and it barks when you move your wheelchair. Now all the kids here want one. That shows that they are aspirational. They see things that are different for someone somewhere else, and say: 'I want some of that.' " As I leave, Martin is finishing off his story. "What shall we make a page about?" asks Wendy. "Money," he answers.

Scope Web site is at http://www.scope .org.uk/

Life and Style
Marie had fake ID, in the name of Johanna Koch, after she evaded capture by the Nazis in wartime Berlin
historyOne woman's secret life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
News
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
News
Jihadi John
newsMonikers like 'Jihadi John' make the grim sound glamorous
News
newsAnother week, another dress controversy on the internet
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executive - Call Centre Jobs

    £7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

    Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

    Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

    £28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

    Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

    £26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

    Day In a Page

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003