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Sarah, a wheelchair user of 14. with spinal muscular atrophy.


Sarah is a year 9 pupil in mainstream high school. Although she is a very bright girl her spinal muscular atrophy means that she has been absent from school due to illness and as a result has fallen behind her peers. Sarah is a powered wheelchair user.

The main difficulty Sarah is having at school is being able to record her work at a level that reflects her ability. This was becoming an increasing problem for her as she moved up the school and the demands of the curriculum placed more and more emphasis on recording work. Sarah increasingly found herself struggling and needed to find a method in whereby she could record her work in a better and more efficient way. Despite having full-time one-to-one support she was very dependent on having someone else scribing for her and as a result her ability to record independently was almost non existent. For someone who has as much ability as Sarah having the independence to record her own work is vital, particularly as she wanted to become an independent recorder of her own work so that she could progress through the curriculum at her own pace.

The most obvious way for Sarah to record her work was via a laptop computer. Because of her spinal muscular atrophy she was unable to use the laptop’s keyboard and required an external keyboard with an integrated trackerball, for example the Little Keys keyboard. It was also important that the keyboard was placed close to her body and in a position that was comfortable and easy for her to access.

The main breakthrough for Sarah however was using a prediction software program called Penfriend. Having Penfriend working alongside her word processing program meant that Sarah could record her work independently, accurately and effectively.

The brightly coloured ‘Function’ keys positioned along the top of the Little Fingers keyboard coupled with the trackerball provided Sarah with a range of options to input and record her work, mainly due to the flexibility of Penfriend. For example, the Penfriend’s prediction window can be customised so she can hear individual words being read back. This is done by simply hovering the mouse over the chosen word. Sarah can choose whether she wants to input the word into her document by pressing an appropriate function key or by using the trackerball – which works extremely well alongside Penfriend’s on-screen keyboard.

Since using Penfriend Sarah has built up a range of subject specific lexicons, for example, lexicons for Chemistry, Physics etc which she can easily drag-and-drop to activate the lexicon she requires.

More recently however, Sarah has found the real benefit of using Penfriend for foreign languages. With its comprehensive range of built-in languages Sarah is confidently looking forward to studying French and German.

Only a couple of years ago Sarah was struggling to record basic English, she would never have believed that with the aid of Penfriend XL she will soon be studying for her foreign language exams.

Written by Craig Mill, Craig is an independent consultant in additional support needs and assistive technology. His website www.assist-it.org.uk contains a range of helpful tutorials including step-by-step guides on using Penfriend.