2012-05-03 / Front Page
Student finds his voice with help of family, school, iPad
Father: ‘Life-changing’ is easy to say; living it is unbelievable
Enrique Mendez, a second-grader at Voorhees Elementary School in Old Bridge, was identified as a child with special needs when he was only a few weeks old. He was eventually diagnosed with Down syndrome, moderate hearing loss and impaired vision, a reduced muscle tone condition called hypotonia, as well as verbal apraxia, a motor skill disorder that rendered him unable to perform the motor planning and movements necessary for speech.
But with the help of his family, the Voorhees school community and some new technology, Enrique has been able to find his voice — and give people in Old Bridge and around the country something to talk about in the process.
In January, Enrique began using an Apple iPad loaded with the augmentative communication application Proloquo2Go, which allows him to tap pictures and icons on the screen, string them together to build sentences and then play those sentences aloud with text-to-speech software to communicate with others.
Enrique’s progress with language during his four months has outpaced even the most optimistic predictions and culminated when he used the device to publicly thank the community during the April 24 meeting of the Old Bridge Township Board of Education, where the 9-year-old was being recognized in an emotional ceremony. “ ‘Life-changing’ is easy to say, but living it is unbelievable,” said his father, John Mendez.
“It’s not his voice, but they are his ideas, and we know that he’s the one that’s making them happen,” he said.
Voorhees Principal William Rezes recognized the importance of Enrique’s story early on and reached out to students in the film and video program at Old Bridge High School, who created a six-minute video to document it.
“It was such an amazing event,” he said. “[The students] tell the story so well.”
In addition to being shown at the April school board meeting, “Enrique Finding His Voice,” which can be found online at http://youtu.be/x7DPlMpCMIQ, has been screened at special education PTA meetings, and Rezes has received phone calls from other school districts after the video was posted to YouTube.
“It’s just a great story of collaboration and student success,” he said.
The most recent chapter of Enrique’s story began last summer when he worked with Voorhees speech language specialist Cathy Sholtzow during the district’s extended summer program, after an augmentative communication evaluation at the end of the school year showed that such a device might be an effective tool for him.
Sholtzow immediately started Enrique on a picture exchange system, or PECS, in which he would exchange the picture of an item with a teacher in order to receive the item itself. Pictures and symbols were arranged on boards and grouped together based around different concepts, like feeling, or food, or locations such as home and school.
“It was immediately apparent to me that he had a lot of language in him,” said Sholtzow .
Having seen Enrique’s potential, in September Sholtzow teamed up with paraprofessional Kelly Bednarczuk, special education teacher Heather Hans, and case manager and learning consultant Aimie Hanlon to write and develop a rationale and secure the necessary funding to get an iPad with Proloquo2Go into the boy’s hands. The funding came through in the late fall, and by January Enrique was poised to start on his quest in search of a voice.
He would not be the first one to have the device, and there were no guarantees on how effective it would be or if it would work at all.
“The tool is only as effective as the people that are using it,” said Hanlon, and in a case like Enrique’s, the work he started in the classroom doesn’t stop when he goes home at the end of the school day. Enrique’s father and his mother, Diana, and his older brother, Cristian, would be as integral to his linguistic success as the faculty and staff at Voorhees.
And the Mendez family has proved to be up to the challenge, encouraging Enrique to communicate using his iPad at home, the park, the circus and even to order his own food at restaurants.
“They just do everything for this child,” said Sholtzow. “They are inspirational.”
A strong school-home connection and constant dialogue between teachers and parents have been essential in programming the software to keep up with Enrique as he incorporates more and more concepts and ideas to express himself.
Sholtzow asked him a question in class recently, and Enrique responded with a question mark because the phrase “I don’t know” had yet to be programmed into his iPad. When reading a book aloud during another class, Hans asked him about the animals in the story. Where Enrique would have formerly pointed to the picture of a dog on the page, he now used the application’s keyboard function to spell out D-OG.
“You’re starting now really to make him a functioning member of the community,” said Hanlon. “That tool is now part of him.”
Prior to this year, without language, Enrique was deemed untestable under standard educational assessments.
In light of his progress over the past four months, the Voorhees staff is now looking at moving Enrique beyond functional life skills and on to academic skills, a step no one imagined at this time last year.
“It’s been an amazing year,” said Sholtzow.
Contact Adam Joseph Drici at email@example.com.