Ket's Help Special Needs Kids Communicate

Let the Caged Birds Sing! Giving Special Needs Kids a Voice

What will be the most significant classroom innovation in the next 10 years?

“The caged bird sings with a fearful trill,
of things unknown, but longed for still,
and his tune is heard on the distant hill,
for the caged bird sings of freedom.”

Maya Angelou, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

The story is well known now that Stephen Hawking, who many consider the most brilliant theoretical physicist since Albert Einstein, has been able to continue his illustrious career despite a debilitating diagnosis in 1963, due to technology that has assisted his communication.

[guestpost]This post is series of questions that Cathy Rubin is asking several education bloggers. I'll be sharing the link to her post that collects all of the responses. I appreciate being part of this group of edubloggers.[/guestpost]

Like Hawking, many students are trapped in the prison of a body that does not unleash their capability. Unlike Hawking, they don’t have access to the technology that will do that. Thousands of caged birds sit quietly in today’s classrooms. Their wings flit, eager for a voice to share the song in their heart. Now that it is more affordable, shouldn't more people have access to the technology that has helped Stephen Hawking live more fully?

Recently I interviewed Karole Pearce, the mother of such a student, Lanie. Lanie’s classmates raised $5,000 so Lanie could regain her ability to speak after her mobile eye-tracking device broke. While excited about the device and her child’s ability to speak, Karole shocked me with her offhand comment that Lanie was sometimes “lazy” and could do more. Are we letting the disability of those like Lanie make us unable to see their ability?

In the 1980’s and before, we typed into computers using the command line interface (CLI). And then transitioned to the mouse and the graphical user interface (GUI). Now, with Siri and gesture-based computing we are using the Natural User Interface (NUI). But a new age is upon us and it is not just smart watches that measure your heartbeat. Just take a look at the tear-inducing YouTube videos of those receiving cochlear implants. Neil Harbisson (called the “world’s first human cyborg”) is painting with sound. The biologic user interface (BUI) is here.

While Matrix-like implications will raise ethical dilemmas we cannot understand perhaps our biggest ethical dilemma is this: Can we justify caging the birds when it is within our power to open the gate and let them sing?

If we unleash the potential of the BUI, then a generation of disenfranchised people will find their voice. BUIs will unleash an exciting age for those with special needs. I say “exciting” with tempered joy because those with special needs and their families have many struggles few others can understand. As I hear mothers like Karole excited about talking with their child for the first time, it is joy I hear.

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

In the next ten years, I hope we work to give all children a voice and listen to them sing. We have the technology. Do we have the will?


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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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susan berkowitz February 20, 2015 - 11:55 am

Thanks for this post. I’ve worked with nonverbal kids for more than 40 years now, fighting to get aac for them, to teach them to read and to write. Getting the idea out to more teachers and to your following helps.

Vicki Davis February 20, 2015 - 12:43 pm

Thank you, Susan, for your dedication. I know so little about what you go through. I only know that when I heard Lanie’s mother talk about how she could one day talk and contribute. When I heard how her friends wanted her to speak again, it struck me how many don’t have the chance to speak but could. It is time to do something. I hope these words are shared far and wide. So, when I was asked what I think the next ten years would be, I wanted to point out what it could be if we really start to understand what we can do to help special needs people and their families reach the new frontier: each other. Thanks for your response.

Anna February 21, 2015 - 2:05 pm

Thank you for including this topic on your blog. Not very many mainstream blogs are inclusive of children with special needs so I appreciate your willingness to reflect a wide range of student experiences. I hope you’ll take what I’m about to say not to harshly but a wish for future blog posts. It’s only from my experience being a parent of a child with special needs that my view on disability has changed over time. At first, I felt shame and pity. I believed people with disabilities were broken. However, when my daughter was born and viewed the world through her eyes, it’s the world that is broken, not so much her. Our buildings, devices, furniture, phones, and learning environments are all designed for a very narrow view of what “typical” is. If the environment was designed from the very beginning with a wider range of people in mind, we may not view people with disabilities as broken. So when you wrote “many students are trapped in the prison of a body that does not unleash their capability,” I cringed a bit. The biggest obstacle for many people with disabilities is living in a world that was never designed for them. I think you got to this point in the end of your article (assistive tech), but not without applying some shame and pity along the way.

I can see your thoughtful reflection in this passage too – “Are we letting the disability of those like Lanie make us unable to see their ability?” Consider this perspective…it’s not about “letting the disability” get in the way…it’s about an ableist perspective that is getting in the way of Lanie.

Please continue to write about this topic. Do so by challenging your perceptions about the world and who it’s designed to help and who it’s designed to harm. It’s not about unleashing the potential in Lanie but why our society has deliberately suppressed her voice for so long.
Thank you

Vicki Davis February 21, 2015 - 5:22 pm

Thanks for sharing! It is a hard issue and I knew that by tackling it and not living it everyday that I would likely say something wrong. That said, I am not sure if society has deliberately silenced special needs- it was so expensive and hard! And yes, the world wasn’t built for them. Most of us are completely clueless- myself included. It is just as I pondered all of the potential out there for how to spend the next 10 years- now that adapting is more attainable for everyone – there is no excuse. If we do nothing then we are deliberately silencing those who can add so much. I apologize if I came across as insensitive or clueless- if I did it is more likely not living it every day like you do that intentionally misstating. I also appreciate your willingness to write such a thorough and well written response. I do hope and pray that our society wakes up to those who are being needlessly ignored. Perhaps trapped is the wrong word but unleashed is definitely the right one. My prayer is for them to be unleashed. And when we do that- watch out world. Warmest regards and well wishes – Vicki


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The Cool Cat Teacher Blog
Vicki Davis writes The Cool Cat Teacher Blog for classroom teachers everywhere