Wednesday, August 30, 2017

News from Our Neighbors to the North

Horror From Human Rights Watch: August 27, 2017

Kenya: Post-Election Killings, Abuse; Investigation of Police Use of Excessive Force; Upholding the Right to Peaceful Protest
 

(Nairobi) – Kenya's presidential election on August 8, 2017 was marred by serious human rights violations, including unlawful killings and beatings by police during protests and house-to-house operations in western Kenya, Human Rights Watch said today.  At least 12 people were killed and over 100 badly injured.

Kenyan authorities should urgently investigate the crimes, and ensure that officers found to have used excessive force are held to account.

"The brutal crackdown on protesters and residents in the western counties, part of a pattern of violence and repression in opposition strongholds, undermined the national elections," said Otsieno Namwaya, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.  "People have a right to protest peacefully, and Kenyan authorities should urgently put a stop to police abuse and hold those responsible to account."

Human Rights Watch conducted research in western Kenya during and after the election.  Researchers interviewed 43 people, including victims of police beatings and shootings, in Kisumu and Siaya counties; examined bodies in mortuaries in Kisumu and Siaya counties; and visited victims at Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral Hospital (Russia Hospital) in Kisumu.

On August 11, following the announcement of Uhuru Kenyatta's victory at the polls, opposition supporters in Nairobi, the Coast, and the western counties of Kisumu, Siaya, Migori, and Homabay protested with chants of "Uhuru Must Go."  Police responded in many areas with excessive force, shooting and beating protesters in Nairobi and western Kenya or carrying out abusive house-to-house operations.

On August 12, the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights reported that the police had killed at least 24 people nationwide, including one in Kisumu and 17 in Nairobi.  The number is most likely much higher, as Kenyan media were slow in reporting on the violence, and families have been afraid to speak out.

Mild protests and political tensions surfaced in parts of western Kenya and Nairobi on August 9, following allegations by the opposition leader, Raila Odinga, that the electoral commission's system had been hacked and polling results manipulated in favor of Kenyatta.  The protests intensified on August 11, when the electoral commission declared Kenyatta the winner.  Odinga has challenged the results in court, with the verdict due by September 1.

In western Kenya, police fired teargas canisters and water cannons to disperse protesters, who threw stones and other crude objects back at the police.  Protesters also blocked roads with stones and burned tires, and lit fires on the roads.
 

On August 11 and 12, police carried out house-to-house operations.  Residents said that police asked for any men in the house and beat or shot them.  Police also fired teargas canisters and water cannons in residential areas.  Human Rights Watch confirmed through multiple sources that police killed at least 10 people, including a 6-month-old baby, in Kisumu county alone.  In neighboring Siaya county, police fatally shot a protester near the town of Siaya and beat a 17-year-old boy to death in the outskirts of Ugunja, as they pursued crowds of protesters into the villages.  Human Rights Watch found no evidence that protesters were armed or acted in a manner that could justify the use of such force. 

In the town of Kisumu, hospital staff and county government officials confirmed that at least 100 people, mostly men, were seriously injured in the beatings and shootings.  Many others did not go to a hospital for treatment for fear of being further targeted or arrested.  As of August 17, at least 92 people with serious injuries, including three women who said police raped them, had not sought any medical help, according to Edris Omondi, the chairperson of the makeshift Kisumu county Disaster Management Center that was registering those affected by the violence and police abuses. 

Residents of Obunga, Nyalenda, Nyamasaria, Arina, Kondele, and Manyatta neighborhoods in Kisumu told Human Rights Watch that during the house-to-house operations, officers broke down doors; beat residents; stole money, phones, and television sets; and sexually harassed women.  Many town residents fled to a nearby school for the night, only to return to find their possessions looted, presumably by police.  Police denied any role in the looting and claimed that criminals were responsible. 

On August 12, the acting cabinet secretary for interior and coordination of the national government, Dr. Fred Matiang'i, denied that police used live bullets or excessive force against protesters and blamed criminals for looting.  "Some criminal elements took advantage of the situation to loot property," he said.  "The police responded and normalcy has returned in the affected areas.  The right to demonstrate should be carried out in a peaceful manner and without destroying property."

International law and Kenya's own constitution protect the right to freedom of assembly and expression, and prohibit excessive use of force by law enforcement officials.  The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms say that law enforcement officials should use force only in proportion to the seriousness of the offense, and the intentional use of lethal force is permitted only when strictly unavoidable to protect life. 

The principles also say that governments should ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offense.  Superior officers should be held responsible if they knew, or should have known, that personnel under their command resorted to the unlawful use of force and firearms, but did not take all measures in their power to prevent, suppress, or report such use. 

Kenyan police have a long history of using excessive force against protesters, especially in the western counties such as Kisumu, Siaya, Migori, and Homabay, where Odinga has had solid support for over 20 years.  In the 2007 post-election violence, during which more than 1,100 people were killed, most of the more than 400 people shot by police were in the Nyanza region, which includes those counties. 

In 2013, Human Rights Watch documented at least 5 cases of apparently unlawful police killings of demonstrators in Kisumu protesting a Supreme Court decision that affirmed Kenyatta's election as president.  And in June 2016, police killed at least 5 and wounded another 60 demonstrators in Kisumu, Homabay, and Siaya counties who called for the firing of electoral commission officials implicated in cases of corruption abroad. 

Yet, accountability for police abuses has been sorely missing, Human Rights Watch said. 

The Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA), a civilian police accountability institution, has investigated many abuses in the Nyanza region.  In September 2016, the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions opened a public inquest into the 2013 police shootings in Kisumu.  But these efforts have not resulted in any prosecutions of the police officers implicated in what appeared to be unlawful killings and maiming of protesters in western Kenya. 

The government of Kenya should publicly acknowledge and condemn any and all recent unlawful and unnecessary police killings and shootings, Human Rights Watch said.  Donors to the Kenyan government should support police accountability systems, particularly the Independent Policing Oversight Authority, in investigating the recent violence and releasing their findings to the public. 

"With tensions still running high as the country awaits the court's decision on the opposition's petition, Kenyan authorities need to be vigilant in preventing more police abuses and upholding the right to peaceful protest," Namwaya said.  "Kenyans should be able to express their grievances without being beaten or killed by police."

Post-Election Police Operations 
On August 8, Kenya held its second presidential election since the disputed 2007 election that resulted in violence in which more than 1,100 people were killed and another 650,000 displaced.  Within hours after the initial results started streaming live on television on August 9, 2017, but before the electoral commission announced Uhuru Kenyatta's victory, the leading opposition candidate, Raila Odinga, expressed concerns that the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission’s (IEBC) server had been hacked and presidential results that were streaming in had been manipulated. 

Following these allegations and the August 11 declaration that Kenyatta had won, opposition supporters in the capital, Nairobi, in western Kenya, and in parts of the coastal region took to the streets in protest.  Victims and witnesses told Human Rights Watch that Kenyan police responded violently, hurling teargas canisters and water cannons in residential areas and using lethal fire. 

Human Rights Watch interviewed 43 people in Kisumu and Siaya counties about the events, including, among others, victims and witnesses. 

On August 11 and 12, according to victims of police beatings and witnesses to the events, police conducted house-to-house operations in the town of Kisumu, using lethal fire against unarmed protesters, violently storming into homes at night, looking for and beating mainly men, extorting money, stealing electronic goods, and in some cases raping women.  In Siaya county, police dispersed crowds of protesters at market centers along Kisumu's Busia Road and pursued them into villages, throwing teargas into homes and beating residents. 

Killings by Police in Kisumu and Siaya Counties 
Human Rights Watch interviewed family members and witnesses to at least 12 killings by police, 10 in Kisumu county and two in neighboring Siaya county, in the former Nyanza region of western Kenya.  Some occurred as police tried to suppress protests, but others occurred during house-to-house operations or in places with no protests. 

While some victims were protesters, others were not and were either caught up in the violence or attacked inside their homes.  A 33-year-old man from the Obunga neighborhood said police found him and friends standing outside his house on the morning of August 12, and started shooting at them without talking to them.  "They arrived in a Land Cruiser that was followed in the air by a helicopter and they just started firing at us.  They did not even want to know what we were doing outside my house.  We had to run for dear life."

In Kisumu county, Human Rights Watch saw six bodies that witnesses described as victims of police shootings and beatings, four of them in the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Hospital, also known as the Russia Hospital, mortuary.  Two young men in their teens from the Nyaori area had gunshot wounds.  A witness said that police came into the homes of the two teens, Onyango Otieno and Ochieng Gogo, on the morning of August 12, beat them, then told them to run away and shot them in the back.  "As they were running away, police shot them at the back and took their bodies away."

According to relatives and witnesses, two others died from police beatings on the night of August 11 in the Kondele area.  Lennox Ochieng, a 27-year-old man, was beaten to death by police in his house in the Kondele neighborhood.  Another body, described in hospital records as "unknown male alias Kimoko," had bullet wounds, but witnesses could not describe the circumstances of his death. 

Another victim, 35-year-old David Ochieng, was shot while he was protesting on the night of August 11.  An acquaintance who was with him during protests said he saw police shoot him around 11pm as he threw stones at the police.  "The bullet went through his right ear and came out through the other side," the acquaintance said.  "He could not talk at the time we took him to hospital but he could communicate through signs.  He gave us the phone contacts of his next of kin by writing in the air using signs."  Ochieng died in the hospital on the morning of August 13. 

6-month-old Samantha Pendo was another victim.  Eyewitnesses told researchers that on August 11, police violently attacked her family, kicking, slapping, and beating with gun butts and batons everyone in the house, including the baby.  A nurse at Aga Khan Hospital said that the baby had a fractured skull and was in critical condition.  The baby died in the hospital on August 16. 

Police carried out the house-to-house operations in Kisumu, as well as villages in Kisumu and Siaya counties.  Residents of the village of Dago said that on the night of August 11, police officers attached to the Dago police post, 25 kilometers north of Kisumu, started firing at villagers strolling on the road, unaware of the protests in other parts of Kisumu.  In the process, they said a police officer shot 21-year-old Vincent Omondi Ochieng, who was working with Elections Observations Group (ELOG), a Kenyan organization that has observed the past two elections. 

"Vincent and his younger uncle were returning from watching a football game at a few minutes past midnight when police officers, who were hiding at Bar Union Primary School, started shooting at them," said his aunt, who lived nearby.  "His uncle told us that Vincent was on phone and the first two shots startled him and he fell.  It was the third shot that killed him."  Human Rights Watch researchers observed the bullet wound in his chest in the heart area. 

While Human Rights Watch confirmed the killings described above, the death toll in Kisumu county could be higher.  Many witnesses and family members were afraid of speaking up or even going to the hospital, while others said they could not immediately establish the whereabouts of their relatives. 

In Kisumu's Nyamasaria neighborhood, for example, witnesses and relatives of a young man who was shot dead near Well Petrol Station on the night of August 11 declined to be interviewed out of fear of victimization.  In Nyalenda, a family said it could not trace two young men three days after initial protests.  In Siaya county, demonstrations also turned violent as police dispersed protesters and carried out search operations in the villages.  Evidence given to Human Rights Watch suggests that police killed two young men. 

In Siaya county, relatives and two witnesses said that on August 12, police beat to death 17-year-old Kennedy Juma Otieno, after pursuing him from Kisumu's Busia Road, where they had dispersed protesters with teargas.  Human Rights Watch and Kenya National Commission on Human Rights members saw his body in the Sega Mission Hospital Mortuary in Siaya county.  His hand, head, and face were swollen. 

Relatives and a witness said that police shot and killed Zacchaeus Okoth, a 21-year-old man from Anduro village, Siaya county, on the night of August 11, as the police used teargas and live bullets to disperse crowds of protesters after the announcement of Kenyatta's victory. 

Beatings of Protesters and Residents in Kisumu 
On the night Kenyatta was declared the winner, the electricity went off in some parts of Kisumu, plunging residential areas into darkness just as police began door-to-door operations that targeted mainly men for attacks, according to victims of beatings interviewed by Human Rights Watch.  At least 100 people were injured by gunshots and beatings. 

A police officer in Kisumu said that a combined team of officers from various police units, such as the General Service Unit, Quick Response Team of the Administration Police, Border Patrol, Special Crime Prevention Unit, and Kenya Wildlife Service were responsible for the operations.  The officers were drawn from several counties and were ferried to Kisumu neighborhoods days before the announcement of presidential results.  Plainclothes officers, whom Kisumu residents suspected to be from the directorate of criminal investigations, swarmed the neighborhoods before the demonstrations started. 

Multiple witnesses, including those who said they were victims of police beatings in Nyamasaria, Arina, Kondele, Manyatta, and Car Wash neighborhoods, said police responded to the "Uhuru Must Go" chant with teargas and gunfire.  They said police dispersed with teargas any groups of more than three people, even people who were not protesters.  International human rights law and Kenya's constitution guarantee the right of peaceful assembly. 

House-to-house operations began soon after the electricity went off.  A 32-year-old father of two and resident of Nyalenda said, "Police started throwing teargas in the neighborhood, sometimes even in the houses, and shooting."

At 11am on August 12, according to witnesses, police carried out a door-to-door operation in Arina estate, beating men and children, and sexually harassing women.  A 17-year-old high school student said she was among a group of people the police beat that day for no reason.  "I was in the house with my younger brother when police kicked the door open and started beating and stepping on me.  They then went to the neighbor where they beat a lady there and her brother."

Police raided the home of a 35-year-old freelance photographer in Obunga estate and beat him severely.  "They broke into my house and started beating me.  They were hitting mainly the joints – knees, shoulders, arms, head, and back.  They stepped on me for a while and then left me lying there, unable to walk.  They broke my rib."

Human Rights Watch interviewed 20 victims of police beatings and gunshot injuries during the protests and during house-to-house operations in Kisumu alone. 

From the hospital records, at least 27 people with injuries were admitted at Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral Hospital (Russia Hospital) on August 11 and 12.  On August 17, officials of a makeshift Disaster Management Center told Human Rights Watch that they had registered an additional 92 victims of police beatings and shootings who were yet to seek treatment at any hospital due to fear of reprisal. 

Edris Omondi, the head of Disaster Management Center, said, "Some of them have very serious injuries like broken legs, arms, and ribs.  Others cannot walk or eat at all and they will need urgent medical attention."

Extortion and Theft from Kisumu Residents  
Many witnesses said the police broke into their houses and demanded money or simply stole money and electronic items. 

In Arina, a 30-year-old woman said that on August 12, police took Ksh5,000 (US$50) from her and another Ksh2,000 (US$19) from her brother.  A 15-year-old girl in Arina said that on the same day police kicked the door to their house open and started beating her with gun butts and batons, and stepping on her.  The officers took Ksh2,200 (US$21) meant for buying charcoal and food. 

In Obunga neighborhood, many families fled the harassment and beatings to seek refuge at Kudho Primary School on the night of August 11.  Many said that when they returned home, they found electronics such as radio receivers and television sets, and money missing, and presumed that police were responsible. 

Those who reported the theft to the nearest police stations in Kondele, Nyamasaria, and Obunga said police were unwilling to investigate and said that thieves had stolen the goods. 

"Police are telling us that it was the thieves who stole our items from the houses," said a mother of three from Nyamasaria.  "But which thieves were these when everyone had either run away, was writhing in pain and unable to walk, or dead?"

Sunday, August 27, 2017

SpecialtyEDU

Toa Nafasi follows Sandra Martin at SpecialtyEDU on Twitter.  She self-describes thus: "Ed professor & classroom teacher for 38yrs, specialized in programs for inclusion, dyslexia, math & reading difficulties.  ALL KIDS DESERVE THE BEST!"

So, you can see why her posts resonate with me, particularly this one from Cengage Learning, "a leading educational content, technology, and services company for the higher education and K-12, professional, and library markets worldwide.  We provide superior content, personalized services, and course-driven digital solutions that accelerate student engagement and transform the learning experience.  At Cengage, we craft learning experiences that propel students toward a brighter future."

This article is a bit Western in Toa terms, but I still think there are some worthy bits that our teaching staff can use in TZ.  Check it out!

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Teaching Strategies: Students with Learning Disabilities


By now, you know that all students are unique and have their own learning preferences and strengths.  You can adapt your teaching strategies to meet these needs, including the needs of students with learning disabilities.

It's vital for all instructors to become familiar with the types of learning disabilities in order to help facilitate a positive learning experience.  Try these tips for expanding your teaching methods to be inclusive of all learning types. 

Approach each student as an individual 

Students with learning disabilities are the largest group of students with disabilities.  Some of the many disabilities include difficulty in writing or reading, difficulty in remembering, ADHD, autism, developmental delays, speech or language impairment, limited cognitive functioning, emotional disorders, or physical impairment.  Teachers should not generalize all students with disabilities into one behavioral and learning group, but approach each student to his or her own personal characteristics.  According to Donald C. Orlich et al., in the book Teaching Strategies: A Guide to Effective Instruction, Tenth Edition: "As you get to know students with disabilities and understand their learning preferences and achievement levels, you will find that they reflect a similar range of diversity as their non-disabled peers" (Orlich, 51). 

Strategies for instructors 

In "Successful Strategies for Teaching Students with Learning Disabilities," the Learning Disabilities Association of America suggested that teachers provide learning strategy instruction; use a multi-sensory approach to teaching; focus on individual learning, achievement, and progress; and provide teacher-mediated instruction at first, then allow the student to acquire skills and work toward student-mediated instruction.  Other suggestions:

  • break learning into small steps
  • supply quality feedback
  • provide independent and intensive practice
  • engage students in process type questions, such as "How is this strategy working?"

Use proven teaching strategies 

Teachers should utilize research-based teaching strategies that show verified successful results for other students with the same learning disability.  Proven teaching strategies assess how students absorb what they are learning, and how the teacher can most effectively impart information.  Teaching methods should not make the student feel uncomfortable or embarrassed and/or feel different from their peers.  Teachers should also be cognizant of the student's emotional well-being and educational progress.

According to Ginny Osewalt in "Teaching Strategies: What Works Best" at Understood.org, teaching guidelines for students with disabilities include:

  • Assuring that students understand the skills learned in the previous lesson before moving on to the next.
  • Asking many questions and creating a discussion with the student, asking them to explain how they derived their answers, and letting the student think out loud to work out the answer.
  • Providing models, examples, and problems that have a solution the student can discover.
  • Allowing for lots of practice and frequent reviews to improve long-term memory.

Instructors can also do the following

  • Discuss the curriculum of the course with the student.
  • Meet with the student to understand limitations and accommodations, and to discern if the student is able to meet the course objectives.
  • Grant special consideration to disabled students, such as extensions or seating preferences.
  • Meet several times during the course to discuss progress or any problems that arise.
  • Not assume the student will slow down the rest of the class.
  • Not single out the student during class for special attention which may embarrass them.

Reference: Orlich, Donald C. 2013. Teaching Strategies: A Guide to Effective Instruction, 10th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: How have you approached teaching students with learning disabilities?

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Team Fox

One of the really fun things about working in development in Africa is the unique and interesting partnerships you make along the way.

This past week, my dear friend Deus Haraja, whose wife Jenn I worked with at The School of St. Jude in Arusha back in 2008, came to Moshi with a group of clients to "climb for a cause."

This phrase is bandied around quite frequently, and I cast no shade on those who use it, myself never having climbed for any cause other than getting my damn self to the top of that blessed mountain.  But for those who do it for charitable reasons, raising money for various organizations, I have nothing but the utmost admiration.

Deus's group was part of Team Fox, The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, and each climber is in some way affected by the disease him/herself, including Jenn and Deus.


Unfortunately, Jenn was unable to make the trip to Tanzania, but I had the pleasure of meeting a lovely group of people from the United States and Canada: Chuck, Lydia, Natasha, Kevin, Anne, Marsha, Dawn, and Josh - if I am forgetting a name here, please forgive me, it's simply a factor of an overtaxed brain and not in any way a personal slight, as meeting each and every one of you and hearing your stories was really a beautiful experience!

The day prior to their trek, Deus asked if they could come out and visit one of Toa Nafasi's participating school sites, and I happily obliged.  The guests brought small gifts for the kids which were met, as you can imagine, with squeals of joy and rapture.

Then Teacher Rose A., who is subbing in for Hyasinta while she is on maternity leave, gave a nice talk about what Toa does in her own words.  (I mean, why should I be the one talking when the teaching staff is doing all the heavy lifting?!)

We also got to peek into the regular Standard One classroom (aka, chaos) so the guests could see the difference between the two learning environments and how Toa is helping to support the kids who are flagging amidst all that noise.

Yesterday, the climbers began their trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro via the Lemosho Route, and will return on the 17th of August.  I can't wait to share some of the stories of their journey and also to join in their celebration.  Though I am down here in Moshi town, a little part of me too is "climbing for a cause" this week.

Below, please find some photos and videos of the guests' time at Msaranga Primary School, and to learn more about Team Fox and Deus's outfit, check this link: https://fundraise.michaeljfox.org/Climb-Mt-Kilimanjaro/DeusHaraja.

 
 
video
 
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Wednesday, August 9, 2017

It's Good to Be Green

Peep this from Nic Corbett, USAID's blog editor.  Soooo, she may be a little bit biased, but she's damn right, this is a good guy and it is good to be Green!  I only wish he was still here in the ole Tee-Zed!!

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7 Facts You Might Not Know About USAID's New Administrator

On Aug. 3, Ambassador Mark Green was confirmed as USAID's administrator.  Read on to learn more about him.


1. He grew up in the Midwest. 
Ambassador Mark Green was born in Boston, but he attended high school and college in Wisconsin.  He majored in English and political science at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and was named to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics All-America team in swimming.  He received his law degree from the University of Wisconsin Law School. 

2. He volunteered in Kenya.
Along with his wife, Sue, Ambassador Green volunteered as a high school teacher in Kakamaga, Kenya, through WorldTeach.  The organization was founded at Harvard, and recruits American college graduates to volunteer overseas.

3. He served as the U.S. ambassador to Tanzania.
In 2007, Ambassador Green was appointed as the U.S. ambassador to Tanzania by then-President George W. Bush.  He led more than 350 U.S. and Tanzanian nationals representing 11 distinct U.S. government entities, and was a prominent voice for U.S. interests, as well as democratization, anti-corruption, and HIV/AIDS.  He still speaks kidogo ku ("just a little") Kiswahili.

4. He has a diverse family background.
Ambassador Green's father is South African and his mother is British.  Both of his parents have been proud Americans for more than 20 years.  He also has close relatives in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. 

5. He served in Congress.
In 1999, Ambassador Green was elected to represent Wisconsin's 8th District in Congress, where he served four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.  He helped craft legislation that launched the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), an independent U.S. government foreign aid agency, as well as the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), an inter-agency initiative that has transformed the global HIV/AIDS response across more than 60 countries.  He was later nominated to serve on the MCC Board of Directors by then-President Barack Obama. 

6. He's respected by the international development community.
Most recently, Ambassador Green was president of the International Republican Institute.  IRI is a non-profit that advances freedom and democracy worldwide.  Previously, he served as president and chief executive officer of the Initiative for Global Development, senior director at the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, and managing director of Malaria No More.

7. He has strong bipartisan support.
At his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ambassador Green earned praise from congressional leaders — both Republicans and Democrats.  Here are some quotes from the hearing:

"Mark's exemplary character and unique qualifications make him an inspired choice to lead USAID in the future." — Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) 

"He has the deep personal passion and commitment to do this job, as shown through years of work in advancing our common good on the international stage." — Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI)

"He has an uncanny ability to bring people together of differing views [and] of differing backgrounds and get them to work on the same page.  He is a person who knows what it takes to improve and transform the lives of others." — Speaker Paul Ryan  

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Gift of Voice

From Autism Parenting Magazine, this article (https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/gift-of-voice/) warmed the absolute cockles of my heart.  For realz.  Check it out and see what amazing parents of special needs children are doing for their equally amazing kids!

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Two Special Dads Give the Exciting Gift of Voice 

Most dads like to give gifts to their children.  Some dads give toys, some give treats.  Others give money, books, or clothes.  But one pair of dads—whose children had no speech of their own—gave a gift that meant much more than any of those.  They gave the gift of voice.

Brian Whitmer and Scot Wahlquist had one big thing in common—each of them had a child who could not communicate vocally.

Brian's daughter, Becca, was born with Rett Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that left her unable to speak or control her body movements.  For years, Becca could only communicate by indicating "yes" or "no" with her eyes.

"I just wanted to find her," Brian said.  "I wanted to know what she thought and felt.  I wanted her to be able to break out of the shell of her body and connect with the world, because I knew she was in there."

Scot's son, Adam, has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and like one quarter of all children on the spectrum, he is nonverbal.  Adam has better control over his body than Becca and began using an iPad in order to communicate with his family; however, his energetic escapades often resulted in a missing or broken speech device.

Convinced there had to be a way to help his daughter, Brian, a computer programmer by trade, dedicated himself to creating a cloud-based Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) application that works on nearly all devices.  It has created strong supports for parents, teachers, and therapists who encourage an AAC communicator.  He called it CoughDrop.


"When you've been talking too long and your voice goes hoarse, you throw a cough drop in your mouth so people can hear you better," Brian said.  "I wanted to provide a cough drop for nonverbal communicators so they could grow and connect with the people in their lives."

The moment he learned about CoughDrop, Scot knew he wanted to be a part of it, because it was exactly what his son needed.

"I contacted Brian to learn more about what he was doing and to see how I could get involved," Scot said.  "This was more than just a professional curiosity for me.  I've seen the heartache on Adam's face when his device—his voice—is broken.  I loved the idea that my son's voice wouldn't be tied to only one piece of hardware.  His speech information could be saved in the cloud and available from any computer, tablet, or phone."

Brian felt the partnership was a great idea.  "I hadn't met Scot before, but I knew he was passionate about AAC, and that drive would help us to keep moving forward.  We are both in it for our kids, and that's a pretty solid motivation."

Following intense research and input from dozens of speech professionals, Brian shaped CoughDrop into an AAC app that could fit any communication need.  He wove in features to provide reports and usage information for parents and therapists.  He created ways for communicators to share messages via email or social media straight from the app so they could connect with the world.  He worked hard to make the program user-friendly and easy to maneuver, and he added a two-month free trial so people could try it out for themselves before buying.

While Brian wrote the code and crafted programs, Scot began spreading the word and encouraging CoughDrop to grow.  Suddenly, the pair of fathers-turned-app-designers was not only bringing their own children a pathway to speech, they were also traveling the country trying to bring a voice to any person who needed one.

"We know we don't have all the answers, so we rely on professionals to give us guidance," Scot said.  "But we do live this reality every single day, so we really feel strongly about it and want CoughDrop to be its best.  After all, this is the way our kids speak too."

Because they knew first-hand the struggles a family faces when communication is an obstacle, these fathers wanted to help others overcome similar problems.

"When it comes down to it, we're just a couple of guys who love our kids and want to share the solution we've found with other people who need it," Brian said.

Brian keeps striving to make CoughDrop the best AAC app possible.  Scot keeps working to help families learn that there is a way to help people without speech be heard.

But deep down, they are really just two dads who want more than anything to give an incredible gift—the gift of voice–to the children they love best.