Meet Michelle — the talk of the town

A Special Olympics gold medallist, teenager Michelle O’Donnell tells CHRIS DUNNE about the remarkable technology that gives her the power of speech
Meet Michelle — the talk of the town
 Michelle O'Donnell - pictured with Mum Sheri, and Dad, Ger.

IT’S not often that I appear on screen, and it’s not often that I get to meet a real-life Olympic hero. Calling to the O’Donnell house in Douglas; I get to do both.

The interviewee in question is teenager Michelle O’Donnell, and when I arrive, she is showing me her iPad and demonstrating how she uses it for an application called Go Talk.

Michelle, who will be 14 in June, was part of the Munster team with Cope Foundation last year at the Special Olympics in Dublin, winning two gold medals.

She is the perfect host, enthusiastically showing me her technical skills.

“The Special Olympics were such a brilliant experience for Michelle,” says dad, Ger. “She did amazingly well. We are so proud of her.”

Michelle, who is non-verbal, is eager to show me how Go Talk works.

Go Talk is an AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) application for Apple iPad. It gives kids with communications difficulties, such as non-verbal, an opportunity to communicate using Text-Tp-Speech.

To assist with word recognition, the Go Talk is customisable with pictures and images, such as the recognised PECS image libraries used by many speech and language therapists. It is clear, full of pictures, and easy to search.

“In Michelle’s case, Go Talk has dramatically improved her ability to communicate, not just with us, but with others around her,” says Michelle’s Dad, Ger.

“Go Talk has given Michelle a voice, which in turn greatly boosted her confidence and her independence. That is the one aspect, we found invaluable.”

Michelle, full of fun and affection, presses a ‘magic’ button on her iPad

I’m asked; ‘Would you like a hug?’

It is lovely anytime to get a hug, isn’t it?!

“Michelle can communicate to us if she’s happy, or sad, or upset,” says Ger. “Go Talk is really useful regarding her personal care.

“If Michelle is feeling unwell, there is no second guessing now. She can tell us where the problem is and where it hurts. That really helps us, and assists the doctor to make things better more quickly,” adds Ger, delighted with the positive impact that assistive technology has made on the family’s lives.

She is a young lady who knows her own mind.

“Now, Michelle never stops talking!” says Ger, laughing. “She’s really animated.”

Go Talk has opened up new avenues for the teenager, giving her the independence that every teenager craves.

“The iPad goes everywhere with her and she can pre-order her coffee and croissants at the coffee shop on her own. Tiramisu cake is often a favourite choice! Michelle is really clever with the iPad. There is always something new.”

Michelle is a fast learner and, like her dad, is good at all things technical.

“Twelve months ago, her speech and language therapists at school, St Paul’s, felt Michelle was ready for Go Talk,” says Ger. “We said, absolutely; we were totally ready to give it a go.

“Myself and Michelle’s mum, Sheri, were both trained up on the use of Go Talk. We can input information for things coming up the next day, like social outings or meeting up with friends.”

 Michelle O'Donnell.
 Michelle O'Donnell.

Typically, the Go Talk app content is arranged into electronic books accessible within the app. Each book contains page layouts and scenes containing regularly used words, items, phrases, requests, etc.

“Michelle has her nan on the iPad,” says Ger.

Michelle introduces me to her Nan in Clonmel. “Nan is a proud Cork woman!” says Ger.

“Michelle’s cousins in Singapore, who she likes to keep in contact with, are on the iPad as well. They often face-time each other to do some catching up.”

Michelle can pick and choose who she wants to communicate with. “She has her friends from school on her iPad too,” says Ger. “She listens to her favourite music artists, Ed Sheeran and The Script. Michelle picks out her favourite songs she wants to listen to.”

When the O’Donnells discovered that Michelle had a rare chromosomal disorder, Mosaic Trisomy 9 — in which the entire 9th chromosome appears three times, (trisomy), rather than twice in some cells of the body — the family re-located to Cork from Tipperary.

“Michelle was four years old when we received the diagnosis,” says Ger.

“She was gravely ill, with respiratory and kidney problems, as well as feeding difficulties. She required a high calorie, high- fat diet. Up to the age of eight she was tiny.”

At age eight or nine, Michelle’s metabolic rate slowed down and she required fewer calories and less fats in her diet.

Now nearly 14, she is a tall, slim, assured teenager who, like many young people, enjoys shopping for clothes, going for coffee and hanging out with her friends.

“At the time she was the only child in Ireland diagnosed with Mosaic Trisomy 9,” says Ger.

“We did our research and decided to come to live in Cork so that Michelle could be supported by the Cope Foundation.”

As she grew up, it was clear Michelle was thriving, progressing in the classroom and on the sports field, reaching her full potential.

“Cope Foundation has decades of expert care; 50 years growing,” says Ger.

“The support we receive from Cope Foundation is huge for us.

“Early intervention for Michelle was vital; we started the process. Michelle attended play-school, Rainbow Lodge at Cope Foundation in 2007, when she was two years old.

“Our medical team here in Cork are brilliant. Our GP is our main point of contact.”

Ger and Sheri reached out to other parents who had children with Mosaic Trisomy 9.

“Thinking back, we didn’t know where to start,” says Ger. “We learnt the hard way; we had to fight for everything, assessing all the services and supports for Michelle that we could.

“We didn’t have a whole lot of information. We were in touch with a lady in UK whose son had the same condition as Michelle. Slowly, we built up a data base of parents in the UK and in the USA that we can share information with and ask and answer questions.

“Mosaic Trisomy 9 can be a tough one to understand.”

Michelle understands that her dad finds it hard to say ‘No’ to her.

Ger laughs.

“Michelle loves shopping at H&M. It is one of her favourite haunts. Douglas Court Shopping Centre is another.”

Michelle doesn’t want her dad cramping her style.

Exactly!” says Ger, laughing.

“When we go shopping at H&M, Michelle points me in the direction of the Compu b Apple Store on Opera Lane!”

Michelle often points in a different direction.

“Yes, she slaps my hip pocket, waiting for me to give her the credit card!”

The girl has expensive taste.

“She likes expensive perfume!” say Sheri. “It is one of her favourite things.”

Michelle is a fun-loving teenager, who likes spending time with her mum and dad. Ger admits that Michelle has him wrapped around her little finger.

“Michelle is great fun,” he says. “We love spending time with her. We have a ball.”

Michelle is a daddy’s girl at heart. “Yes, she gets away with more with me!” admits Ger.

“Michelle and I have breakfast every morning together which is a big moment every day.

“After school, we sit on the stairs and we swap notes about our day. They are moments to treasure.”

Michelle likes travelling too.

“She loves France, especially Nice,” says Ger. “We’ve been to Nice seven times!

“Michelle is really sociable and she loves going on holidays, always discovering something new.”

Go Talk travels too.

“It is an amazing addition to our lives,” says Ger. “Michelle has a whole new level of independence because of it.”

Like all parents, Ger and Sheri have concerns about their child’s future.

“I do worry,” says Ger. “But we live for the day.

“Yes, we think about the future; about when Michelle is older. “We have to make the big decisions then.

“Michelle has to have an operation in her ankle in the near future to improve her balance and her posture. As she is getting older, she is getting taller.”

Dad is looking forward to a treat in the near future.

Michelle nods, smiling; she agrees totally.

“I think I’m being taken to Scoozi’s for Father’s Day,” says Ger.

No doubt Michelle will remind her dad not to forget the credit card!

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