A Big Voice for a Little Girl
Speech-Language Pathologist Terry Kappe Makes a Positive
Difference in a Young Life
It's well documented that most adults rank public speaking
as their number-one fear. Yet when third-grader Leslie Tran took
the stage in March 2006 to accept the California
Speech-Language-Hearing Association's (CASHA) 2005 Child
Consumer of the Year Award, her confidence and her voice came
through loud and clear. How Leslie got to that award ceremony is
the story of a life-changing blend of proactive speech-language
pathology, visionary education, family support and extraordinary
personal determination-with no room for fear.
A Struggle for Breath and Speech
"Determined" is the first word medical professionals
and teachers use to describe Leslie Tran. "Truly
amazing" runs a close second. A premature infant, she spent
her first six months of life in neonatal intensive care,
overcoming several life-threatening conditions. One disorder in
particular presented the biggest threat to her ongoing health and
quality of life: stenosis of the airway.
In this condition, a webbing forms across the airway,
partially blocking it. Some people are left with an airway clear
enough to allow them to breathe and speak. In Leslie's case,
her airway had been reduced to the diameter of a pinhole, making
every breath a struggle. In her first three years, she had more
than five surgeries to correct the problem as much as
possible-but breathing and speech were still major
A School Where Students Learn to Soar
Despite her medical difficulties, Leslie grew and thrived. At
three, she started school at Byron E. Thompson Elementary in El
Monte, California, which has a unique special needs program for
children with severe health conditions and orthopedic
disabilities. Thompson's open-learning environment and
individualized education programs (IEPs) offer curricula and
techniques tailored to each student's physical and cognitive
needs. Students there learn to use adaptive communication
technology in their daily lives as other students might learn to
use a pen and paper.
Supporting this program are dedicated teachers skilled at
working with special-needs children. And at its foundation: the
school's encouraging atmosphere. It's particularly
telling that Thompson's mascot is the eagle-reminding
students that no goal is too high to reach, and that they can
soar to greatness.
Return to Top
Speech-Language Pathologist Recognizes Growing Potential
At Thompson, Leslie met her speech-language pathologist, Terry
Kappe. Kappe says that within moments of meeting Leslie, she saw
that the girl's cognitive skills were very advanced-and that
she was eager and determined to communicate.
As a toddler, Leslie had communicated with her parents using
sign language. With Kappe, she began to learn cognitive and
vocalization skills. Kappe uses interactive games such as Go Fish
and "Name Playing" to provide a fun and engaging
environment for students to practice speaking and answering
As the lessons progressed, Leslie quickly became ready to
learn to use adaptive technology. Kappe introduced her to a
wireless adaptive communication system called a DynaMyte, which
became Leslie's "voice" for the outside world
within a matter of weeks. According to Kappe, in an academic
setting other than Thompson and with another student, such
progress would have taken more than a year.
Finding Her Voice
This voice augmentation technology, with its dynamic display
and ability to record thousands of messages, proved to be the
right solution for Leslie. Soon the young student was
communicating with her teachers and classmates at school and
family members at home. Before long, she advanced beyond using
icons to spelling out words.
According to the professionals who worked with Leslie,
adaptive communication technology has been integral to her
educational and emotional development.
"When I met this remarkable girl, two years ago, she was
a little shy and wasn't sure what to say to me at
first," says Joshua Witt, Leslie's DynaVox Field
Trainer. "However, once encouraged by her speech-language
pathologist, she had plenty to say."
Leslie learned how to program her adaptive communication
device for specific lesson plans, entering word lists and saving
them in folders to use later in upcoming discussions. One of her
many classroom assignments was to write about her weekend
activities-where she went, what she did and who she met. Leslie
used her device to compose her assignments, download them onto a
computer and print them out for her teachers to read and grade.
Today, her records of more than two years of weekends stand as a
memoir of her growth and change.
Candace Murakami, Leslie's special education teacher at
Thompson, says of Leslie's compositions and communication:
"She is creative in her storytelling and has a sense of
humor that is absolutely delightful!"
Return to Top
Speaking Out, Learning to Lead
Academically, Leslie has surpassed her peers with her
intelligence and dedication, says Kappe. She has earned a Student
of the Month award, happily asks for more homework and "is
becoming quite the conversationalist."
Leslie confidently uses adaptive technology to communicate
outside of the classroom, too. She can make adjustments to the
device so that she can be heard in different situations ranging
from one-on-one conversations to acting in school plays.
But perhaps most impressively, Leslie takes the initiative in
helping her peers, particularly those less physically capable
than herself. She uses the skills learned from troubleshooting
problems on her own adaptive communication device to help program
those of her classmates.
Terry Kappe remembers, "In first grade, there was one
little girl who was just beginning to use her DynaMyte to
communicate with her classmates. She lost the page she was
working on and when her teacher couldn't figure out how to
reset her page, she went and got Leslie from another classroom.
Without any hesitation, Leslie started to train her to use it,
and then even showed the teacher how to program the
Her technical skills-and sheer determination to
communicate-showed in full force when Marianne Stone Smith, CSHA
District Director-Elect, visited the school. The battery in
Leslie's DynaMyte device had died. One might assume that the
meeting would have to be canceled.
But instead, Kappe saw this as a prime opportunity to show how
Leslie could rise to the occasion and gave her a quick lesson on
another type of adaptive communication device. Leslie caught on
immediately and soon was "chatting" and happily
answering questions. By the time the meeting was over, Marianne
Stone Smith was so impressed with Leslie's aptitude and
attitude, she knew she had found the perfect candidate for the
Child Consumer Award.
The Tools for Tomorrow
Since enrolling at Thompson and learning to use adaptive
technology to communicate, Leslie has learned that there's a
lot more in life to explore-experiences such as going to the
movies that children without disabilities might take for granted.
With the help of an adaptive communication device, Leslie now not
only feels comfortable going to movies, but has become a
traveler-even visiting Las Vegas on a recent family vacation.
Recently, Leslie took these life lessons with her as she
joined her brother at Repetto Elementary in her hometown of
Monterey Park, California. But she hasn't forgotten her
teachers and friends at Thompson. She recently sent Candace
Murakami a homemade birthday card. And like any girl her age, she
loves to talk to her classmates on the phone.
A Bridge to a Bright Future
Leslie was selected from candidates in 10 other regional
districts to receive the Child Consumer Award at a ceremony in
San Francisco. According to Marianne Stone Smith, while Leslie
was happy about the award and the ceremony, she was even more
excited about getting the chance to see the Golden Gate
She says she will never forget how Leslie's face lit up at
the ceremony when they wheeled out the dessert of the evening. It
was a cake in the shape of none other than the Golden Gate
Bridge-a fitting symbol for a little girl who had traveled so
In the words of Terry Kappe, "Because she has shown such
perseverance and such a strong desire to succeed, I have no doubt
that she will do well and continue to be an inspiration to all
who know her."