2 weeks ago

Speech generation device increases independence

Former seven-time Australian boccia champion, Ange McReynolds started playing when she was eight because she wanted to “be around the boys”.

Thirty years later, you can still see that spirited girl in the accomplished woman Ange has become – especially when she explains the impact Accent, a speech generation device using eye gaze technology, has had on her life.

“I can go on public buses by myself because I just use my Accent to ask where to stop,” she says.

A Cerebral Palsy Alliance (CPA) speech therapist worked with Ange to get an eye-gaze activated Accent in 2013 and as soon as Ange mastered it, a new world of possibilities opened.

“It’s given her a voice,” says Matt McDonald, Disability Support Worker with CPA, who has been working with Ange for 12 years during boccia competitions and providing personal assistance. “She’s an amazing girl. She often catches a bus to meet me at Dee Why for fitness sessions.”

Ange lives in one of our supported accommodation homes in the Sydney northern beaches suburb of Narraweena. Narraweena is several bus stops away from the Dee Why foreshore where she meets Matt for Saturday workouts but Ange relishes being able to get out and about.

“My Accent has had an impact on so many different parts of my life,” she says. “I can go shopping by myself because I can ask a shop assistant for anything I want. I’m fast so they don’t have to wait around while I’m typing in my Accent for things.”

She also uses the same speed to have conversations with people – something that wasn’t possible for most of Ange’s life, not that being non-verbal prevents her from communicating.

During a boccia competition, Matt sets up the ramp and ball to Ange’s liking and Ange uses a head pointer to play the ball. “Game rules mean I’m not allowed to say anything,” he says. “She communicates with her eyes to give me instructions.”

Ange plays boccia four days a week at Allambie Heights Campus under the CPA Sports Program. In fact Ken Halliday, a CPA Disability Support Practitioner, credits Ange’s passion for boccia for triggering its growth in Sydney.

Inspires younger players

Ken has known Ange since she was a youngster and accompanied her to international competitions. “She played overseas for Australia three times but the travel took a toll on her health so she retired for about a year in 2013. When she returned to boccia she worked really hard to try and get back up to national level.”

Ange didn’t reach those heights again but Ken says she’s become a role model for younger players. “A lot of the young players aspire to do what Ange has done. Her CP is more severe than some of the other players and they see how hard she works for her fitness and health.”

Matt admires Ange’s “zest for life”. “She’s smart, resilient, extremely patient, kind, understanding and dedicated. She’s a big, strong spirit and like a sister to me.”

He loves the way assistive technology has given Ange more control of her life. Using eye gaze technology she can communicate via text and email and do her own administrative tasks such as internet banking and setting up appointments. She also uses it to study a sport and fitness course.

Ange’s ability to express herself has extended to attending CPA educational sessions for speech therapists. Using her Accent, Ange helps them to understand the needs of non-verbal clients.

But boccia remains her first passion. “I’m in charge and I feel emotions based on whether I succeed or fail. Win or lose, it’s on my merits.”

Just as importantly, boccia grants Ange the opportunity to feel part of a team, develop friendships and to meet new people. Matt points out team members often start playing together when they are children so they feel like family. He says it’s a privilege to work with Ange. They focus on boccia with a mix of one-to-one training, playing in competitions, along with fitness sessions and hydrotherapy.

Hydrotherapy gives Ange a sense of freedom. “I need to be strapped into my wheelchair for most of the day. However, in the water I can exercise without restriction.” And, she wouldn’t miss her gym sessions for health reasons. 

“The gym is very important to me because it has improved my life. Before our gym workouts I used to get recurring chest infections. Each time I had one I had to stay away from boccia for about a month to recover. Now I don’t have to take time off boccia.”

Participation in activities such as boccia, hydrotherapy and the gym can be funded by your NDIS plan under Improved Health and Wellbeing and Increased Social and Community Participation. For information about what is available in your area, contact your local Cerebral Palsy Alliance office.

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