Tynesha Murray wears white skinny jeans and a pink tube top with gold sandals. She smiles while typing vigorously on her iPad in response to a question about her favorite part of being on the cheerleading squad.
A robotic female voice answers, "Looking at the football players," causing everyone in the room to burst into laughter.
Tynesha is like any other junior at Bakersfield High School, but she has cerebral palsy. Thanks to her new iPad, she can now communicate clearly and easily for the first time in her life.
New technology has been a game-changer for many people with disabilities. Smartphones, tablets and apps have made it easier than ever to access technology that can make life easier for people with disabilities.
Cerebral palsy leaves Tynesha unable to vocalize, so she uses the application TouchChat, one of many text to speech programs available on the iPad. Previously, Tynesha would type her responses onto her cell phone in text form for people to read, which was difficult and time-consuming.
BHS Program Specialist Beverly Foster has seen Tynesha through her journey and watched her struggle to communicate her intelligence.
"She just happens to be trapped and she needed this device to even out the playing field," Foster said.
BHS speech pathologist Katie Whyte has also been using the iPad to teach children with autism how to interact socially. Apps like Talking Ben the Dog, Talking Gina the Giraffe and Talking Bacteria John all feature animated characters students can talk with and learn from.
"It just encourages interaction," Whyte said.
Adults are getting in on the tablet revolution, too. The Kern Assistive Technology Center helps people figure out what technology works best for them, whether it's a smartphone or bulkier machinery, and helps them apply for financial assistance to buy the equipment that can run anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000.
Director Aaron Markovits said the introduction of affordable communication technology, like the $500 iPad, has brought more people into the center looking for ways to make their voices heard.
"It's been a game changer for everyone and people with disabilities are no different," he said.
Still, he said there will always be a need for more expensive, customized communication equipment.
"An iPad was never built to be a communication device; it's not durable," he said. "There is always going to be a market for those who need to access a computer in a different way other than touching,"
And it doesn't stop with communication.
Markovits said he recently attended a conference where he saw the technology being developed to control a power wheelchair with only thought. There are also computer systems that let users control mouse movement with their mind, though those systems can cost about $10,000.
But some people don't need fancy equipment.
Kern County Veterans Service Department representative Benjamin Rodriguez suffered a head injury while serving in the Army that left him with very limited short-term memory. As a result, Veterans Services issued him an iPod Touch to better keep track of his schedule.
"Prior to having that simple and effective system in place, I was missing appointments left and right," Rodriguez said. "I would miss the simplest of things."
One of the biggest benefits to using items like iTouches and tablets is that it's easy to learn how to use and socially acceptable.
The Kern Adult Literacy Council primarily handles teaching the basics of reading and writing, but Executive Director Ida Tagliente said she hopes to incorporate more computer skill classes into their services within the next year.
"We'll teach them to use different programs so they can surf the Internet," she said.
Garth Zimmerman uses his computer and cell phone to settle arguments and text friends from his home in Tehachapi where he lives independently.
Zimmerman's mom, Lydia, of the Kern County Disabilities Association said her son has a neurological disorder that has resulted in seizures and learning disabilities of certain kinds, but technology has helped him improve his communication skills greatly over the years.
"It's his window to the outside world," she said.
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