WITH the help of technology, pupils with disabilities from the School of the Divine Child at the Lavanagh Centre have overcome the fact they are non-verbal.
As part of the Lifelong Learning Festival, they have written a rock musical and will perform it at the school in Ballintemple over the next two days.
The musical, called The Food Wars, uses the storyline of Star Wars with good and bad foods in a battle. To give a taste of the humour on show, Luke Cauliflower is the good guy while Darth Vurgar is the baddie!
There are ten pupils involved in it, including 14-year-old Jessica Vasile as Yo Gurt and 13-year-old Lee Gibson — both of whom are non-verbal.
Ciara Hourihan, who teaches seniors at the centre aged between 13-16, and music teacher, Oran O’Reilly, are guiding the enthusiastic pupils, making sure the musical will showcase their abilities.
“Both Jessica and Lee have big parts,” says Ciara.
“Lee is the narrator and Jessica is the beautiful girl with loads of advice, helping the others to fight and win the battle for healthy food.”
To enable the non-verbal pupils to communicate, a Voice Output Communication Device (VOCA) is used.
It’s an electronic device that has the power to ‘speak’ for the pupil. It also helps to improve the quality of the child’s life and can help them to communicate with others. iPads are also used.
A programme called Snap and Core, which is an assistive communication aid that enables the pupils to voice their thoughts and communicate with others, is used.
Using touch screen, eye gaze or a mouse pad, the pupils can click on symbols. Once the symbol is pressed, the programme will speak the word.
There are different voice options for the vocal output. Within Snap and Core, teachers and parents can customise the programme tool to react to suit the pupil’s needs. Sentences can be programmed in to help pupils speed up the process when applicable.
Principal of the school, Patricia Harrington, explains how Jessica, for example, can communicate. “The other day, I walked into a classroom and Jessica pressed a key and the words ‘Can I tell you something?’ came out. “She then ‘told’ me what was happening with the musical.”
The words are pre-entered using Snap and Core.
“If there’s a phrase that Jessica uses a lot, like how she likes cooking with her grandmother, I type in the words ‘Last night, I was cooking with granny.’ And Jessica can then play this whenever she wants,” explains Ciara.
While the school has always held events for the Lifelong Learning Festival, this is the first time that a rock musical is being presented.
Oran, who has written musicals in the past, started work on this project about a year ago.
“We wrote about half the songs ourselves,” says Oran. “With the other songs, such as Heroes by David Bowie, we changed the lyrics to suit the show.
“There’s a programme called Garage Band. For example, you can work from chords, sometimes just random selections.
“As we develop what we’re doing, we can get music that is slow or more rocky.
“It’s great to see the pupils developing the songwriting. They came up with all the ideas themselves. It worked out a lot better than I thought it would.
“We performed Act One for postgraduate students in special education needs at UCC in February, a course I did myself last year. The students of this course come out to us every year.
“We normally put on a concert for them. This year was a first for us with our own musical.”
There are plans to transfer the musical to CIT in May.
Oran will play guitar for the musical and the Garage Band programme will provide the sounds of real instruments, which will be played through a sound desk.
The School of the Divine Child has long been involved in the development of information technology, ever since its participation in a pilot project on the use of computers in schools in 1984.
“Because the pupils all have physical disabilities, we’ve always used technology,” says Patricia. “I can remember us getting an Apple 2E in the late ’80s.
“We did courses in writing programmes so that we could write material for the children to learn. However, the technology overtook us.
“Stuff started arriving in that was outstanding. The problem with devices at the moment is that they’re a bit too big.
“Something the size of an arm would be handy, or even something like a watch.
“The technology is improving every day. Lee can bring his device home (as it was bought for him by his family) but Jessica can’t bring the iPad home as it belongs to the school.”
While technological devices are a vital communication tool for children, funding is always an issue.
There are three routes of funding; private, the Health Service Executive (HSE) and the department of education and skills (DES).
Hi-tech equipment, like Snap and Core, can cost thousands of euros when the device is included, as well as stands, software and upkeep of the device.
Regulations for applying for funding are strict, making it difficult to access funds. The DES requires proof as to how the device would benefit the child’s education. The HSE wants proof that the device is needed because of the child’s health.
Patricia says that, even though communication tools are expensive, they are a necessity for children who cannot communicate verbally or have difficulties doing so.
The Food Wars — A Rock Musical will be performed at the School of the Divine Child on April 10 and April 11, at 10.30am.