Stewart Gordon has found his voice.
The 39-year-old Prince George resident has cerebral palsy and the disability prevents him from being able to talk via conventional means. Now that he's equipped with a computer loaded with cutting edge technology, thanks to Communications Assistance for Youth and Adults (CAYA), he can tell friends and family exactly what's on his mind.
"He's able to communicate with other people, rather than us having to tell them what Stewart wants," Stewart's sister Ethel-lyn said. "It allows him to interact more with other people."
Stewart takes his computer everywhere he goes, from worship services at St. Michael's Anglican Church to his regular bowling outings.
When asked how he felt about his new speech aid, Stewart picked "leave it here" from his preprogrammed list of responses to indicate how important the technology has become to his daily life.
CAYA is a provincially funded organization that helps clients over the age of 19 in need of augmentative or alternative communication aids find the right equipment and pay for the devices. It currently helps more than 700 clients province-wide and is aimed at helping young adults who have left the education system.
In order to get the most out of the program, family members or caregivers need to input important phrases into the machine for the user to select. In Stewart's case, Ethel-lyn played a big role in making sure the most important words were available for her brother to select.
"Stewart can't access the device if it's not accessible, and the family is responsible for that," said Barbara Kayter, a speech pathologist who works with the Gordon family through CAYA.
The options can be constantly updated as needed, so if Stewart finds something missing from his list he can ask his sister or another family member to add it.
Until he got the technology last year, Stewart communicated by answering 'yes' or 'no' to questions by moving his head one way or the other. Although his family understood him and it allowed him to get his message across, it was time consuming for both him and his caregivers as they had to play a game of 20 questions to narrow down what he was trying to request.
The new technology works with sensors on Stewart's forehead, which works as a mouse. The movements of the sensor are captured by a camera mounted on top of the computer. By moving his head ever so slightly, Stewart can select from a menu which holds categories organized thematically - for instance he can select different types of food from one list or clothing items from another. Once he's picked the category, there are various word and phrase options to choose from.
All of Stewart's friends are also in the system and he's created personalized greetings for each of them.
"Hi Todd, what's cooking?" Stewart said, showing off one of his favourite selections for one of his regular bus drivers.
The device does more than just helps Stewart, who lives at home with his mother Jean, speak with family, friends and caregivers. It also gives him more independence by working as a television remote, a light switch and device he can use to listen to his favourite music - he loves the bagpipes.
The technology also has some safety benefits for Stewart. It's now much easier for him to ask for help if he's not feeling well.
"He can now say if he's hurting or has a headache," Kayter said.
Clients in need of the speech assistance technology are first assessed by speech pathologists with CAYA who then try to find the proper device for each unique situation. For some patients it could be something they squeeze or push to select the appropriate computer icon, others like Stewart work better with the sensor placed on their forehead.
"He was able to do it all so quickly," Kayter said. "He was a relatively easy client to assess."
CAYA then provides the equipment and training on how to use it for both the client and the caregivers. The speech pathologists also provide follow-up care with the client and families to make sure everything is working the way it should.
Even with the computer aid, it can take Stewart some time to get his message out. Because of the precision required to move the mouse around, he sometimes selects the wrong icon as he works he way to the intended menu. Kayter said anyone speaking with him needs to be patient and let him get to what he wants to say in his own time rather than trying to speed things up and selecting for him.
"The analogy is it would be like going into someone's mouth and pulling their tongue around," she said.
The computer and camera also must be placed directly in front of Stewart to work properly, which makes it difficult for him to sit face-to-face with people. When a friend at a restaurant asked Stewart if he would move his computer so they could see each other better, he replied: "No, I like it."
"For Stewart it's more important to be able to communicate than to see somebody," Kayter said.
For more information on CAYA, including how to apply for assessment, visit CAYABC.org