Leani Tell, a six-year-old student at Sandburg Elementary, roams her first grade classroom, playing freeze dance with classmates, practicing addition and subtraction, and learning all about spelling and punctuation.
While Leani’s peers are in the classroom, she accomplishes all these activities virtually from home, using assistive robot technology. Leani has spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic disorder that breaks down motor neurons and muscles, and requires a tracheostomy ventilator to breathe.
Using her specialized remote controlled two-wheeled videoconferencing robot, and a Tobii Dynavox Eye Gaze Device, which allows her to communicate verbally, Leani is able to participate in school alongside her classmates.
“Everything may look different, but it’s adapted to what she knows,” Leani’s mother, Nichole Fritts said. “I was worried she was going to be behind still, but she’s totally on track!”
Leani’s robot at Sandburg, which she steers with a remote from her home, is equipped with a tablet, allowing her and her classmates to see and hear each other. Leani’s eye gaze device features a digital keyboard of letters, numbers, pictures, colors, and more, and tracks her eye movements. When she stares at a key to select it, the computer automatically reads the word or letter outloud.
Anna Cliff, an MMSD assistive technology specialist and occupational therapist, works with Leani’s parents, Nichole and Dwight, nurse, and teacher to streamline the process. Currently, four MMSD students utilize the assistive technology. Looking ahead, pre-training student team members on the specialized tech and teaching “robot etiquette” will help the program grow smoothly, Cliff said.
“It’s so incredible to have families like Nichole, Dwight, and Leani a part of this project, because they’re leading and paving the way for a lot of other students in our District,” Cliff said.