Monday, January 17, 2011

University of Montana student with CP educates 4th graders about her assistive technology

From The Missoulian:

Sierra Lode (pictured) introduced herself.

"I'm happy to be here. I'm a student at the University of Montana. Go Grizzlies."

The fourth-graders at Rattlesnake Elementary were likewise happy to meet Sierra Lode. They learned that she's 27, a communications major at UM who loves going to dances, eating cheese, watching movies galore and keeping up with friends on Facebook.

And they were inquisitive about the stranger in their midst. Was she ever bullied? What does she do in her free time? Does she have any pets?

And how exactly does she talk with her eye?

Questions, questions, questions. The fourth-graders in Catherine Schuck's class spilled them until the bell rang, then said goodbye and walked off talking about Sierra's cool computer, the one that spoke the words Sierra's eyeball told it to.

But before all that, the first fact they learned about Sierra Lode is that she has a severe case of cerebral palsy because a virus attacked her brain before she was born, damaging it so badly that she will never be able to walk, or play sports, or even get words to emerge from her mouth.

Instead, Sierra has a computer with eye-response technology, friends and family who love her, and the fortune to live in a society that will simply not allow a dream to remain imprisoned in a disobliging body.

Because Sierra Lode, like all the kids in front of her, has a dream that needs a dance floor.

Clear your memory of physicist Stephen Hawking's voice - he has elected to retain his famous robotic intonation, one born from outdated technology. Then imagine a soft, elegant diction and lilt of a woman's voice - Sierra's voice by proxy, kind and composed.

"I want you to know there is no damage to the part of my brain that thinks and learns and enjoys life," said Sierra.

The cutting-edge technology that gives Sierra her voice, while not perfect, is vastly superior to the technology of even a decade ago.

"Did you even think that someone like me, who can't use her fingers or speak, could access the computer with her eye?" asked Sierra. "That is the technology I'm using right now."

A camera below Sierra's computer tracks the movement of one of her eyes, then registers it as a signal on a monitor. Sierra can choose individual letters, and even whole words that way, forming the sentences that become thoughts that become whole conversations.

And, of course, term papers.

Sierra is a communications major at UM, and plans to put her degree to use by helping other disabled people become just as independent as she's become.

She was accompanied to the school by her mother, Karol Lode, and her mentor, UM sociology professor Charlie Wellenstein.

When she was a little girl growing up in Helena, Sierra's prospects for education or a vocation were depressingly dim, said Karol Lode.

"When Sierra was in preschool, I would never have believed that she would be in kindergarten, much less go to college," she told the class.

Wellenstein said it is the miracle of technology that put Sierra in his classroom.

"In the past, that would never happen," he said. "But because of technology, because of people who work hard and care, it is no longer impossible."

Technology is one barrier that is being overcome. So, too, are attitudes about people with disabilities, those physical and mental limitations that are minor, like a speech impediment or a slight limp, or major like Sierra's.

For Sierra and the other Rattlesnake visitors, more important than showcasing the "cool" factor of high-tech equipment is instilling compassion, understanding and inspiration in the children of Schuck's class.

A slight glitch in Sierra's computer forced her mother to speak for her briefly.

"People with disabilities deserve respect, just the same respect that you deserve," she said. "And that is what Sierra really wanted to impart."

As for Sierra's other answers to the original questions?

No, she was never bullied. In her free time, she loves to watch movies. And yes, she has pets - her roommate has a wee puppy, and Sierra has fish.

In other words, Sierra is just like you and me.

Just ask her.