Ian is seven years of age. He suffers from chronic encephalitis which affects his language and movement – his motor skills.
Now a Swedish eye-tracking technology which is known as Tobii is giving Ian, who lives with his family in Argentina a voice.
He communicates by selecting sentences and objects on a screen through his eye movements.
His mother Sheila is president of the Gecenym Foundation an independent organisation in Argentina which helps people with neurological diseases.
“The peace of mind I get as a mother is very important. Right now, what has changed with Ian is that he can play on his own, turn on the television, share a moment with his brothers, play music to them or tell them what he has been doing.
‘He can take the device to school, raise his hand and speak with the device. Ian’s classmates say he can speak. Ian speaks with the Tobii and with his eyes. This has changed Ian’s self-confidence, it has been strengthened,” she explained.
The Gecenym foundation is teaching professionals across the country how to use the technology. The Centre of Integral Rehabilitation and Neurological Education in Buenos Aires is one place where people learn how it works.
Four-year-old Eluney Rodino is one of the children stimulated by Tobii and the therapists agree that her improvement is noticeable.
“It was a very important change for us. One very important thing is the smile on the children’s faces when they manage to use the device and the independence that it gives them, because usually when they have to make a signal or hit a switch, they often need the assistance of an adult to help them adjust their motor skills. With this device, no one needs to help them. This gives them a degree of independence that I believe makes them very happy,” explained Natallia Ibarra, a phonoadiologist.
The eye-tracking technology, already very popular among advanced video games, can allow disabled children to be integrated in standard school classes.
So far, the Tobii’s use is limited because it’s still relatively unknown and quite expensive.
Another advantage of technologies like the Tobii is that they can bring a deeper understanding of how the human brain works. Claudio Waisburg is a child neurologist at the Institute of Cognitive Neurology in Buenos Aires.
“With the improving knowledge of the brain, with the advance of neuroscience, with the changes of the techniques to better understand how the brain works, one can better understand how interventions cause changes in our brain structure. This does not mean that our brain used to evolve differently but today we understand better how it changes thanks to specific interventions that are geared towards stimulation,” he said.
Currently very few families can afford the device which costs around 13,000 euros.
The Foundation helps them to reduce the high import fees and by putting pressure on the government in order to get help to buy.
“Families buy it directly from its country of origin and the foundation helps them to import it. But not all families can afford it so social insurances and the state needs to support them because it changes radically the life of a person, a family and society as a whole,” explained Ian’s mother.
But because of falling costs and technological advances, the Tobii should be more affordable in the future. Hi-tech industry is already testing, for instance, systems to get people with disabilities controlling their prosthetic limbs or eye tracking cameras to drive electric wheelchairs.