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Union County school introduces program that gives a voice to nonverbal students

Joan Lewis, speech-language pathologist and IT support specialist for UCPS, says this program - referred to as “talkers”- could be a game-changer.
The district has introduced a customizable app that allows students who have difficulty communicating to verbalize through the speech program.
Published: May. 23, 2022 at 11:23 AM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Nonverbal students at Poplin Elementary School in Union County are now speaking their minds thanks to a new program introduced in the district.

The Exceptional Children’s Department for Union County Public Schools has partnered with the company TouchChat to introduce a customizable app that allows students who have difficulty communicating to verbalize through the speech program.

Joan Lewis, speech-language pathologist and IT support specialist for UCPS, says this program - referred to as “talkers”- could be a game-changer.

“The devices come with a very robust vocabulary,” Lewis said. ”We can customize and add things as needed. Having multiple things available helps us in the classroom learn what works best for each student.”

One of those students, fifth-grader Mesoma Richard, or “Mimi,” is doing so for the first time since she started attending Poplin Elementary in kindergarten.

Joan Lewis, speech-language pathologist and IT support specialist for UCPS, says this program -...
Joan Lewis, speech-language pathologist and IT support specialist for UCPS, says this program - referred to as “talkers”- could be a game-changer.(Sharonne Hayes, WBTV)

Mimi is an autistic, nonverbal student. Previously, she communicated using mostly limited sign language and Pragmatic Organization Dynamic Displays, or PODDs, a book containing pictures, words and symbols typically involving a partner.

Carrie Thompson, speech-language pathologist for Poplin Elementary, has been effectively working with Mimi with the PODDS, but says this program is a promising next step.

“So, she would point to something and a partner would say it,” said Thompson. “And then the partner would flip. So, she’s been very good at this and she used this at home during Covid. That helped her get ready for this.”

The TouchChat app can be programmed with everything from current lesson plans to books and songs. The program is installed on iPads that nonverbal students at Poplin Elementary can carry with them. Speech-language pathologists have the program on their iPads as well.

The Exceptional Children’s Department for Union County Public Schools has partnered with the...
The Exceptional Children’s Department for Union County Public Schools has partnered with the company TouchChat to introduce a customizable app that allows students who have difficulty communicating to verbalize through the speech program.(Sharonne Hayes, WBTV)

Right now, the exceptional children’s program at Poplin is allowing some students to carry the talkers outside of the school halls to after-school activities and home to continue their learning.

Students like Mimi can find items by category, like “fruit” or “objects.” At the press of a few buttons, a voice can put the commands in order to make complete sentences.

“‘What is this animal?’ And I want her to be able to finish the story, kind of read along with me,” said Thompson. “We want her to find it in the natural vocabulary.”

For Thompson, the talkers, though new, are already changing how learning happens for nonverbal students like Mimi.

“We’re learning vocabulary, we’re learning how to put sentences together,” she said. “And so now we’re doing that with the ‘Talker.’”

Related: Union Co. elementary students learn to read with the help of puppies

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