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A brush strokeAce Centre blog

Jennette Greenwood 2023 AT Scholar

17/12/2022

17th December 2022

Jennette Greenwood is AAC Coordinator at Pendle View Primary Special School and works with children on a range of high and low tech communication devices, develops personalised communication systems to allow children to access an education.

Two British Assistive Technology scholars fly to Orlando next month to attend ATIA, America’s most prestigious assistive technology convention. Mick Archer spoke to them, starting with Jennette Greenwood.

When I call her at home Jeanette Greenwood is busy editing a video of her school’s concert. It’s a Sunday. Because of Covid, the school couldn’t ask parents in as is customary. So, as the IT specialist, it’s fallen to her to spruce up the recording they’ll see instead.

Married with four grown-up sons Jennette has worked in special educational needs (SEN) for 27 years. Her first role, she recalls, was supporting a ‘young lady’ with visual impairment at a nearby all-age special school.

At the time Jennette was looking for a better-paid job that would fit in with raising a family. ‘I saw this job and it was a 10-minute walk from where I lived. It seemed perfect. But I must admit after the first few days I thought “What have I done?” By the third day, I was loving it.’

This was also her first brush with assistive technology (AT). As the school’s headteacher introduced her to the student in question she pointed to a grey box nearby. ‘That’s her computer,’ she said matter of factly, ‘and I have nothing to do with it.’

The box was an Acorn, a computer launched in the UK in the summer of 1987 and still around in many schools a decade later. ‘She had a touch-screen overlay that constantly fell off,’ Jennette recalls. ‘The only activity she had on it was something called Fairground.’

Unfazed, Jennette taught herself how it worked. ‘I’ve always been a messer,’ she says. ‘I’m dyslexic but I’ve never found computers hard work. I’ve always found my way around them.’ She also learnt Moon — an early embossed reading system for visually impaired people — and Braille.

These formative experiences sparked her lifelong interest in SEN and AT. ‘For me, the passion has always been getting to know the children and making resources that work around them,’ she says.

Even now she is surprised that younger teachers are not more au fait with IT. ‘When it goes down they all fall apart, don’t they?’

Pendle View

Today, Jennette is the Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) Coordinator at Pendle View, an award-winning, generic, community special school for children aged 2-11. The school has 125+ pupils on roll. At the time Jennette joined it she had already accumulated a wealth of experience using AAC.

 

The school recruited her to help set up ‘Robins’, a specialist communication and language centre. It is one of four specialist hubs that support classroom teachers within the school.

Jennette is proud of the level of support Pendle View pupils receive. ‘We are very, very fortunate in our school in that every single child has the opportunity to access the world around them,’ she says.

Children start in a classroom. She and other specialists might then withdraw them for 30 minutes or an hour each day. ‘I might, for example, work with children who are using PECS (a picture-based AAC programme),’ she explains. ‘I get them to a certain level, then start working with staff so they can take it back into the classroom.’

 

Some children need more than one form of specialist support. Those that Jennette sees often need regular physiotherapy too. ’Sometimes, especially with the physios, we will pull together. If, for example, I’m setting up a wheelchair mounting system to support a child’s head so they can use eye-gaze.’

Over the last 12 months, she says Covid has slightly changed her role. ‘Now a lady that works with me goes and spends a term in each class while I work with the children with more complex needs. They come into my room and I do a lot of intensive interaction with them, finding that key to unlocking learning. In some children, it can be just looking for a response. I build on that and put some kind of communication in place.’

Inclusive Technology

Pendle View also works in partnership with AT specialists Inclusive Technology. Together they test and refine new hardware and software. It’s a win-win situation. The school gains early access to new products. The company values the unfiltered feedback it receives.

 

Jennette says it’s not only her opinion that counts. ‘I ask the children how they feel about what they’ve been using and they always give brilliant answers.’ She believes more companies should work with staff and pupils when developing new products. What developers and end-users think is often a whole different kettle of fish, she adds. ‘Often for children with complex needs companies pitch the product at too high a level.’

Most recently it’s been eye-gaze technology that has wowed her. She cites the example of children with cerebral palsy. Before, they would struggle to express themselves and often become frustrated and depressed. ‘There wasn’t the technology at that time for them to communicate what they wanted,’ she says. ‘Eye-gaze is a big step forward and it’s becoming much more accessible.’

ATIA

In January, Jennette will fly to Orlando, Florida. There she will attend ATIA, the American Technology Industry Association’s annual convention. She is one of two 2022 British Assistive Technology Scholarship (BATS) awardees making the trip. She says she is looking forward to learning more about US SEN provision and in particular their use of AAC.

In January 2021, ATIA took place online. Jennette was one of 20+ UK scholars sponsored by BATS to attend. She joined live sessions and accessed archived recordings before and after. She recalls watching many of the seminars in her room as Covid meant fewer pupils were in school.

In her report, she reflects on the enormous changes in AT she has seen in her working career. During her interview for her first job in SEN, she was asked if she knew how to use a photocopier. At the time, this was the extent of the IT knowledge she was expected to have. Photocopying skills were essential, her interviewer explained, for creating the classroom resources her pupils would need.

It was Google’s Euphonia Project that reminded Jennette how far AT had come since then and how far it still had to go. Google researchers aim to improve speech recognition on phones and other devices so they can understand atypical voices. These include people with Multiple Sclerosis, who are deaf, who have suffered strokes or who stutter.

‘What they’re doing with a lot of adults is getting them to record certain words and phrases,’ Jennette explains. ‘Then they are using AI (Artificial Intelligence) to work out a pattern from those samples.’

‘I did contact them to ask if they were doing any work with children on this. At the moment, because of the regulations, they aren’t. For me, that’s a big shame. That’s where it needs to start. So many children become so frustrated because they can’t communicate what they want.’

Following up on projects like this in Orlando is one of Jennette’s key aims. That and better understanding the way professionals like her work in the US. When she returns she expects to report back on what she has learnt. Back at Pendle View, it will feed into training a new member of staff that will take over from her role someday. Meanwhile, there’s still that video to sort out.