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Tablet technology gives independence to adults with disabilities

Dale Holt watches a video on his tablet device with guardian John Ditch. The tablet has provided Holt, a 48-year-old with Down syndrome, more independence and communication.

John Ditch had no idea the tablet device he bought for gaming would end up a life-changing tool for a man with Down syndrome.

Ditch, who is the guardian of Dale Holt, 48, brought the tablet along on a visit to Holt, who immediately took to the device, which can be operated with a simple swipe or tap to the screen. 

"He's always liked looking at magazines and turning pages, which is exactly what you do on a tablet," Ditch said.

Seeing Holt navigate it with ease, Ditch decided to save some family photos and video of Holt's favorite Johnny Cash tracks on the device. Holt was displaying early signs of Alzheimer's disease, and Ditch thought showing Holt the media regularly would be a good way to jog his memory and keep his mind sharp. So far, it appears to be doing just that. 

"I know that he can recognize (photos) because he'll smile or grin," Ditch said. "Some of the pictures and songs will make him sad, some will make him cry, but it evokes an emotion. It does bring something out of him whether or not he's able to verbalize it." 

Ditch, the director of information services for communication for Community Living Inc., told the organization of Dale's progress with the tablet. His story inspired CLI, which provides services to individuals with disabilities in St. Charles County, to buy tablets for each of its day rehabilitation centers. The tablets are enabling clients to achieve new levels of independence. 

"I don't think we've run across anyone who doesn't benefit from it, and I don't know that we can say that with anything else we have," said Joann Sanford, Community Living's director of adult support services. 

The tablets serve multiple purposes, Sanford said. For clients who benefit from routine and struggle with task completion, staff can create visual schedules on tablets that play animation or video when a task is successfully achieved. Others play games like matching or memory that stimulate the mind or bowling that promotes hand-eye coordination. 

The tablets' most valuable asset, Sanford said, has to do with how clients feel when operating the technology on their own. 

"There's one gentleman who doesn't have much ability to control his arms or legs, but he can move his hand like this," Sanford said, using her fingers to mimic a swiping motion used to flip between photos or pages on a tablet screen. That client couldn't manipulate his fingers to turn pages in a book, but being able to use a tablet has "opened up a huge door for his independence because he can do something by himself. The smile on his face, that 'I made that happen,' is pretty incredible," she said.

Tablet technology is allowing many people with special needs to achieve aspects of self-sufficiency they wouldn't be able to do otherwise, like watching a movie without asking for help, Ditch said. 

"Dale can watch movies on a DVD, but he can't operate a DVD without assistance because of the remotes and all the buttons. Now, he can find his videos and pictures and doesn't have to rely on other people to get him a video to put in the DVD or VCR," Ditch said. 

Tablets also are giving a new voice to people with limited or no verbal communication, Sanford said. CLI staff can load tablets with applications that allow individuals to form sentences using images to answer questions and address needs.

"When you give Dale a verbal option, a lot of times he'll pick the last thing you said. When you're showing him pictures, he's actually making more of a choice," Ditch said. For example, when Ditch asks Holt what he wants for dinner, Holt can pull up an image of the Taco Bell logo or a hamburger.

Older text-to-speech and communications devices were bulky, had short battery lives and cost several hundred dollars or even more than $1,000, Sanford said. A tablet is not just easy to tote, it's a financially realistic tool for families.

"Most individuals weren't able to get the funding to get them," Sanford said of older communication technologies. "(Tablets) are a fraction of the cost, and a lot of the applications are free to download." 

Software for tablets is constantly evolving, which makes Sanford hopeful the devices will continue providing new ways to support people who have physical and development disabilities.

"There's so much competition to create applications that are better and different," she said. "They're always continuing change."