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 challenges.

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.

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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 questions.

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!"

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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 system."

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 Bridge.

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 far.

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."

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