For nearly a decade, Quinn McNellis was unable to share what was on his mind.
These days, thanks to technology and the development of an in-school curriculum at Homewood’s Millennium School, he introduces himself, tells you what grade he’s in, what class he likes and even extends an invitation to play card games via an Apple iPad mini.
Quinn is a 12-year-old with Down syndrome. He’s able to understand when spoken to, but he was shut out of a daily routine because of his limited ability to speak clearly. He’s functioned for years in a loving Homewood family because his parents, Chris and Julie McNellis, his 15-year-old sister, Maggie, and 10-year-old brother, Nolan, have understood what he was trying to communicate.
In the real world, Quinn had no way to break the silence until he transitioned from SPEED, a specially designed school for children with mental and physical handicaps, to District 153. Quinn was given an iPad with a iChat function. His world has opened up and the changes have been astounding, his mother and his teacher, Kathy Call, say.
“When he came to us he didn’t have any language,” Call recalled. “His way of letting us know was to cry. He was frustrated. I equated it to a toddler who doesn’t have the language. Now not only is he able to communicate using this (iPad), but his verbalization, his speech, has just increased tremendously.”
On March 16, Quinn will receive a 2016 Outstanding Student Technology Award from the Southwest Infinitec Coalition, an organization working to promote opportunities for inclusion and independence for children and adults with disabilities through assistive technology, information and training and access to specialists.
“Once he started, he exploded and that’s why he’s winning this award,” Call said of Quinn’s achievement. “Basically he went from having no means of communicating at all to just really doing a great job.”
Initially, Quinn’s iPad gave him speech, but on a very limited basis.
“Last year (the iPad) only had two choices — I want or I need,” Call explained. He had very few categories to choose from.
When Quinn moved up to Millennium School, Call became his teacher and she set out a regular curriculum for him. He got an Apple iPad mini and it got a major memory update to include a host of information in various categories so that Quinn can express himself. Every day he shares a knock-knock joke. He shares information about his family’s dog and asks the teacher about her dogs. He can discuss the weather, or talk about what he had for dinner. Each day he practices how to call 911 in the event of an emergency.
“We added in who I am, where I live, that sort of thing. His mom made suggestions for things at home and when they’re out,” Call said. “The iPad is something he was just waiting for.
“We were lucky to not only (improve) the communication, but we’ve been able to integrate him more and more into the classroom. And now we’ve incorporated his classroom stuff (on the iPad) so, for example, instead of us reading he’s reading by touch,” allowing Quinn to work through the material by listening to and answering the questions.
“He’s creating a project in science class using two iPads. An edu-creation video and he’s going to be asked questions to do the recording,” Call added. “This just gives him the opportunity to be like everybody else in the classroom.”
The McNellis family has had Quinn involved in Special Olympics and other programs for kids with disabilities, but Julie McNellis believes Quinn and others “need places like school so they can be part of the community.”
Although Quinn will never be a fully functioning sixth grader, Call is working to teach him skills he will need for what lies ahead. Throughout the day Call works one-to-one with Quinn on classroom projects and social skills so that when he joins with other students for lunch and physical education he interacts as a peer.
“If it wasn’t for Kathy (Call) he wouldn’t be where he is,” McNellis said. “Kathy truly is the source of his success. I couldn’t have a better teammate for Quinn. We’re very lucky.”