Engineering is part of John Kopelciw ’s DNA. A self-confessed workaholic he would probably be happiest in a workshop surrounded by circuit boards, wiring and a soldering iron. In the mid 80s, through sheer serendipity, he met two special needs teachers, John Muldoon and Nick Pronger, who asked him what he knew about sensory rooms.
The best assistive technology starts with what students need, as the story of the Doo-zy switch show
The answer was nothing. He recalls them taking him off to see a snoezelen-inspired room in the special school where they worked in Bradford, UK. Muldoon and Pronger explained that the room was currently used for relaxation but they wanted something more: for the children to be able to control some of the sensory devices using switches. Could he help?
With a background in stage lighting, electronics and sound systems Kopelciw could see the potential. While he didn’t know much about switches, Muldoon and Pronger patiently explained what they wanted and Kopelciw came up with a solution. In no time at all there were neighbouring schools requesting his help.
As the interest in sensory rooms grew over the years so did Kopelciw’s expertise.
In 1992 with two fellow directors he established SpaceKraft, which soon became the go-to company for schools wanting to install a multi-sensory room. In 2007 SpaceKraft was bought by the technology supplier RM. And that might have been the end of the story.
Talking to him eight years later Kopelciw evokes SpaceKraft’s ethos. He attributes its success to the fact that it was all about interaction and the use of switches: ‘Nothing happened without a child pressing a switch’. In the process the children began to learn the basics of contingency awareness, what most of us refer
to as cause and effect. Today Kopelciw is back in business.
His focus? Switch technology. The new company’s name? Switch-Ed. Switch-Ed’s core products are the Vibe-Lite and the Doo-zy – switches that combine an array of features and illustrate just how far switch technology has progressed in the intervening 30 years. While the Vibe-Lite both vibrates and glows when pressed, providing the user with multi-sensory feedback, it is the Doo-zy that demonstrates the full gamut of features that can now be housed in one small box.
As the name Doo-zy implies, it is ‘something outstanding and unique of its kind’. First of all it is a communicator. Kopelciw says he wanted something that built on the speech quality of the BIGmack, Ablenet’s single message communicator capable of replaying a pre-recorded message up to two minutes long. He’s certainly done that.
The Doo-zy is capable of recording up to six-and-a-half hours of high-quality sound when fitted with a 1GB SD card. Recordings can be made using the internal microphone, or from an MP3 player or external microphone via a socket on the rear of the switch. Lightly tap the switch pad and the recording is replayed. Connect an appliance or toy and its action can be made contemporaneous with the speech or sound output.
Switch activation options include momentary, latch, timed on, timed off, sequence and opposite. This means the Doo-zy can be used for a wealth of purposes from teaching simple cause and effect, turn taking or anticipation to playing back a pre-recorded story or song or making choices. Like the Vibe-Lite the Doo-zy’s switch pad can also vibrate or glow, ideal for those who benefit from multi-sensory feedback or for using the Doo-zy in a darkened setting such as a multi-sensory room.
That might be enough for most but there’s a great deal more. On the front of the Doo-zy you will find a ‘Magic Eye’ capable of detecting motion over a short (up to one metre) or longer (up to four metres) distance. This means the switch can be activated without pressing its pad but also that the Doo-zy can be wall-mounted using its purpose-built bracket so that it is activated when someone comes into range. The Doo-zy can also be used as an infra-red remote to switch everyday appliances on and off and can be made mobile and more accessible using a range of mounts.
The big sell
With its features optimised Kopelciw’s next task was show teachers and therapists how the Doozy could be used. While refurbishing a multi-sensory room at Ravenscliffe High School and Sports College in Halifax (UK) he had already met its sensory needs co-ordinator Julia Barnes and her colleague, specialist speech and language therapist, Heather Clarke.
With the school’s agreement they had agreed to provide essential feedback on Doozy’s development, something which is ongoing. Ravenscliffe is Calderdale’s only secondary special school with approximately 130 11- to 19-year-olds on roll. All of its students have learning difficulties and many of them have additional sensory impairments. They are, as Kopelciw says, at the sharp end of using assistive technology.
Barnes and Clarke were keen to help, not least because they saw the Doo-zy as resolving the problem of transitioning students from one device to another as their needs changed. This can be disruptive for teachers who have to familiarise themselves with different devices but for students with profound and complex learning difficulties the challenge is far greater. A student may take weeks or months to become confident with a particular switch only for it to be taken away when their needs change.
The big sell, as Barnes and Clarke explain, was the idea of having one device that could accompany a student throughout their learning journey. Within months of seeing the Doo-zy and realising its potential Ravenscliffe had purchased 10 with money gifted by a fundraiser. It was then that Kopelciw posed them a new challenge: would they be interested in writing a book?
A practical guide
My Doo-zy, My Friend, Our Journey took 18 months to complete. It is a beautifully produced hands-on guide designed ‘to ensure Doo-zy users achieve their full potential’. One of its strengths is that it uses the Routes for Learning model to outline a potential ‘journey’ for the student. This consist of 21 teachable skills: cognitive, communicative and environmental. Each skill is given its own colour-coded chapter, topped off with an additional chapter describing how Doo-zy might be used across the curriculum.
As the authors say, Doo-zy’s features combined with the activities in the book ‘aim to break down any physical barriers which may have previously hindered individuals from being able to control and access opportunities to develop their intentional communication skills.’ One of the more novel suggestions the authors make is using the Doo-zy to enhance home-school communication.
Messages can be left on the Doo-zy for children to take home at the end of the school day to relay their achievements. Likewise, when the Doo-zy is brought into school on a Monday morning it can contain news about what the student has got up to over the weekend, information that can used to further build communication skills.
This doesn’t just strengthen home-school relations, as valuable as that is, it also introduces students to phatic communications: ‘Utterances that are said to have exclusively social, bonding functions, establishing and maintaining a friendly and harmonious atmosphere in interpersonal relations’. It is these, say the authors, that make us who we are.
Needs vs technology
But the book isn’t just for existing Doo-zy users. It also paints an impressive picture of what can achieved when a student’s needs are paramount. As the authors say, all too often the emphasis is on what technology can do rather than on what it is we want to achieve.
They give the example of Ahmed (this is not the student’s real name), who is very visually impaired and tactile defensive and whose main pleasure comes from tapping surfaces. With previous switches Ahmed had to have them positioned for him and then would repeatedly tap them, seemingly taking delight in the clicking sound rather than the recorded message.
With the Doo-zy, by using the light to attract his attention, loading it with his favourite music and varying its position on his tray, his hand movements became noticeably more intentional. He’s also began to control his tapping, waiting until the music finished before turning and pressing the pad again. This is a classic example of technology being used to help bridge a learning gap, either by teaching the student a new skill or revealing a skill that was present but hidden.
And it not just about ticking boxes. Barnes and Clarke talk passionately about the way achievements like these boost students’ self-confidence and set them up for the next step on their learning journey. Already they are including the Doo-zy in funding applications for when students move on from school. With the pressure on teachers it is easy to understand the attraction of the quick fix, but for Barnes and Clarke, having invested time and effort in mastering the Doo-zy, there is no turning back.