York Tech invention helps Rock Hill child communicate

York Technical College engineering students developed a tool this summer that will help a Rock Hill elementary student communicate better in school.

The device, called “HEARTS,” fits a tablet-like, hand-held computer called DynaVox which helps people who have speech disabilities to communicate by selecting phrases or words on the computer screen.

York Tech students designed and constructed a protective case for the DynaVox and a grid-like screen to make the computer easier to use for people with limited motor skills.

The case unfolds to serve as an adjustable stand which locks to ensure the computer is stable for the user.

HEARTS – short for hand-assisted ergonomic adjustable resilient text-to-speech support – comes with attachments that move with and support the DynaVox user’s hands to make communicating with the speech assistance technology easier. The York Tech students also tailored a carrying bag to make sure the device can be safely transported.

DynaVox is made by a U.S.-based company named DynaVox Mayer-Johnson. The company designs and manufactures tools and software specifically for people who have speech or learning challenges.

The students in York Tech’s mechanical engineering technology program built an accessory that fits the DynaVox computer and other tablets such as the Apple iPad.

HEARTS was specifically designed for a special-needs student at a Rock Hill elementary school, college officials said Tuesday.

York Tech and the school district declined to offer specifics about the child who will benefit from the new device, saying they are restricted because of legal reasons. But school officials said a tool like HEARTS could be helpful for anyone – child or adult – who has multiple disabilities.

HEARTS will particularly help a person who has a speech difficulty and who has limited motor skills, specifically with hands, fingers and wrists. A person already benefiting from a tool like DynaVox can have increased success in communicating when the computer is used with HEARTS, said Marie Kelly, Rock Hill schools’ speech pathologist.

DynaVox and HEARTS are designed to aid people with a range of disabilities including brain injury, cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis, Kelly said. The HEARTS user selects buttons on the DynaVox which produces an audible sentence and allows the user to communicate.

One challenge with touch-screen technology on DynaVox or an iPad, Kelly said, is that a person with limited control over their hands has trouble making specific selections on a computer. The grid-like screen developed by York Tech students provides a guide that makes it easier for the user to choose a communication button.

The HEARTS tool gives independence to a person who may usually have to rely on someone else to control their hand while using a computer or speech assistance device, she said.

York Tech students and HEARTS engineers Melissa Bailey, 33, and Tripp Gwin, 29, say they were proud to produce a device that will help a local child with special needs.

“It’s rewarding to do something like this,” Gwin said, instead of engineering a tool that might help a mechanic pick up a transmission.

York Tech students were with the Rock Hill elementary school student when she used HEARTS for the first time. Seeing their invention in use, Bailey said, made the experience much more meaningful than just completing a class project for a grade.

“It almost brought tears to my eyes,” she said.

The team included cutout hearts in the construction of the DynaVox case. They chose the design after learning that the young girl who will use the device loves heart shapes.

York Tech’s project saved the school district and the child’s family thousands of dollars, officials said on Tuesday. Support for HEARTS came from in-kind contributions from Jim Myers & Sons, Line-X and Pro-Motion Engineering.

The college is seeking a patent and copyright for the device.