The Magic Phone

Joe just got a new cell phone for his birthday.  Just so you know: in Joe’s opinion, this is the best gift he has ever gotten in his whole life and he is obsessed with it.  Now, this is not the first cell phone Joe has had.  We got him his first cell phone when Joe was in his fifth year of high school (about 4 years ago at the age of 20).  At the time, Joe barely ever talked on a phone and when requested to do so, he would only say a few short things and then would abruptly end the call.  He could not dial a given number on a house phone without a lot of help.  He could only ‘read’ things like “Wendy’s”, “McDonald’s”, ”Wal-Mart”: words that had a distinctive shape or had symbols with them (and were usually heavily marketed on TV).  He had no idea how to operate a cell phone and we weren’t even sure he could keep track of one.  Like Joe’s brothers, you may be asking, ‘So why did you even get the phone for him?’.  Well, like a lot of things I do regarding Joe, I sorta stumble upon ideas. You see, ‘every’ typical high school student at Sycamore High had a cell phone.  And, as I noticed on a visit to the special ed classroom, many of the students who had disabilities, also had cell phones.  So it dawned on me that my Joe was getting left out and I determined that this was one of those times I could do something about it.  So we bought Joe a cell phone (very simple, cheap, with barely any services) as a status symbol, for one reason.  And for a second- more practical reason, for safety.  It occurred to me that Joe really needed to learn how to make (and become comfortable with making) a phone call so that in the case of an emergency (if he got lost or heaven knows what else might happen) he would be capable of calling me.  Also, at the time, Joe was very unreliable as far as his ability to produce personal information such as a home phone number.  If he had a cell phone with him, at least someone else could help him call home. Besides, we paid for cell phones for Joe’s two ‘typical’ brothers.  Were their needs that different from Joe’s?  It was a small price to pay for Joe to be COOL and safe.

For a while, Joe just carried the phone with him.  He wasn’t that interested in using it but felt really cool with it and pulled it out often to push the buttons and see what would happen – plus, of course, to show off  that he had a cell phone.  He did a great job of keeping track of the phone (better, in fact, than his brothers did); and he started remembering to put it in his pocket each morning as he headed off  to school.  The phone had a feature for speed dial.  So I set up his home number, his dad’s cell number, and my cell number behind easy to remember numbers on his phone.  All he had to do was push the 3 to call home, etc.  But there was a bit of a trick to it.  In order to make the cell phone dial the full number, you had to push the 3 and hold it until it began to dial the home number.  Try as we might, Joe just could not learn to hold the number in.  So I let it rest for a while as he continued to take his phone to school and ‘play’ with it.  Then one fine day, he calls the home number from his cell.  Believe it or not, he somehow figured out how to use the cell phone’s address book.  I don’t know if someone at school showed him, or he stumbled across the method on his own – but he somehow learned.  Amazing – right?!! So, I structured the entries in the phone’s address book in a way that he could recognize the names.  He started practicing making phone calls, then actually holding a conversation instead of calling and hanging up, and then learning to make calls to his Granny (who loved the attention).  Now, he easily makes calls to several people from his cell phone and routinely calls me to chat on his boring rides home from StarfireU in his taxi.  He’s still not great at answering the phone – but we are working on that.  Oh, and he also enjoys taking pictures on his phone too, which I also did not teach him!

Anyway, Joe recently decided that he NEEDED a smart phone like the ones he has seen used by staff members at StarfireU.  Joe’s Dad and I balked.  Again, I came across some very intriguing ideas …. I was lucky enough to attend a meeting with staff members from Hamilton County DDS and various representatives from other disability related organizations across the county regarding the Hamilton County DDS Vision 2014 Plan ( .  The intent of the meeting was to generate outside-the-box/forward-thinking ideas around themes that are important to the futures of people with disabilities.  At the beginning of the meeting, a short film was shown that demonstrated how technology might be utilized in the future to assist adult individuals with disabilities in living on their own, in traveling around their neighborhood,  and in connecting with others.  In the discussions that followed, it became clear to me that technology’s role in the lives of individuals with disabilities has vast potential in the very near future.  Well…. Then…. We can’t have Joe being left out, now can we?!!  So, I decided that he really did NEED that smart phone.  He needs to learn how to utilize technology and to be comfortable with it – how to access the internet – how to utilize social networks – how to use touch sensitive technology – how to operate voice activated utilities – etc. etc.  There are parts of his life right now where technology can assist him.  Joe’s Dad was on board – but the brothers …not so much (I’m sure they will come along though).   Joe got that smart phone.

The phone we got for Joe is an Android because there are so many ‘apps’ out there for just about anything, and more are being developed every day.  We have already found 4 ways to utilize Joe’s phone to assist him in being more independent in his daily life – in addition to the ability to make and receive phone calls, of course.  (1) Learning:  His phone has a voice activated Google interface.  He has already learned to search for just about anything he desires to learn about.  He still doesn’t read in the typical sense; so for now, he gets what he can from the pictures and has learned how to pull up and watch YouTube videos – an excellent mode of ‘reading’ for him. I am amazed at how much Joe can already independently learn on the internet!  (Don’t worry, there are ways to screen what is shown.) And, at some point, I am hoping to find a screen reader app that will read the web page to him.  (2) Planning:  I signed Joe up with an online Google Calendar and tied it to his StarfireU calendar that is updated online regularily by StarfireU staff.  I plan to keep the personal part of the calendar updated for him so everything will sync to his phone and he can bring up his calendar at any time to see what he has scheduled.  He can also show his calendar (on his phone) to anyone who is trying to schedule something with him.  (3)Making Friends:  I am planning to put meaningful pictures on his cell phone so he can bring them up as conversation starters.  See, Joe has a tough time talking about himself when put on the spot, say with a new person.  One of the best ways to grow acquaintances into friends is to share important information about yourself; and I wanted a way to help him do that.  I am thinking that a picture which demonstrates something about him would be a great conversation starter and would help Joe talk about his passions or the various interesting things about him.  (4) Connecting with friends:  Joe already had a Facebook account so we synced it with his phone and now he has mobile Facebook and can keep up with his friends on a minute-by-minute basis (which seems to be a real NEED for the current generation).  We aren’t paying for texting since he can’t read or write.  But, hey, anyone who wants to send him a Facebook message – feel free, one of us will read it to him and type his response for him.

Well, no one can say Joe’s not plugged in now!!  I am sure that as we go along, we will find other uses for this new magical phone. Joe really loves the Navigation / GPS feature.  I, personally, am not so sure how this will help him yet – other than the joy he gets out of using it – which may just be enough of a use all on its own.

Having done this, having jumped in the technology world with both feet; I am optimistic.  I would like to think that Joe and I have begun our journey in earnest my making our first baby steps towards at least 3 of the 5 Valued Experiences ( Sharing Spaces, Growing in Relationships, and Experiencing Respect)!

Is there anyone else out there on a similar journey?  I would love to hear your stories!


P.S.   In case you haven’t been exposed to The Five Valued Experiences which lead to a ‘Good Life’ for us all, here’s a link to Starfire’s ( interpretation: (Give it a few minutes to load.)