Transforming Residents’ Lives

Assistive Equipment Turns Possibility Into Reality

Photography by Jon Keeling

For years, everyone from her mom to the resident life coordinators who care for her daily at St. Joseph Home of Cincinnati thought Angie’s favorite color was purple. Imagine their surprise when – thanks to modern technology – they learned that her favorite color is red.

No small discovery.

Nonverbal and physically challenged, now in her early 40s, Angie understands what others are saying to her, but for most of her life has had to communicate her likes, dislikes, wants and needs via wordless clues facial expressions, glances, shaking her head yes or no. Understandably, it’s been a frustrating guessing game for Angie, her family, friends and caregivers.

Not anymore.

A piece of computerized equipment known as a switch access scanning device allows Angie to select icons representing a vast array of items on a screen – including food and pictures of St. Joseph Home staff – by pressing a large button conveniently attached to her wheelchair with her left elbow. The switch activates a speaker in Angie’s wheelchair headrest, which only she can hear. She is also connected to the internet, enabling her to connect with others on Facebook and Skype, or enjoy Netflix movies and YouTube videos.

Angie is smart, observant and quite skilled at communicating with others and utilizing the other helpful aspects of her assistive device, her St. Joseph caregivers agree. “It has opened up a whole new world for her,” says Stacey Uhl, resident life coordinator. Following a recent visit to the Aaron W. Perlman Center at Children’s Hospital, for example, Uhl asked Angie where she wanted to eat lunch. Using her scanning device, Angie answered, “Chick-fil-A.” What did she want to eat? With a couple of elbow presses, Angie replied, “Nuggets and fries.”

Angie’s mom could not be happier with her daughter’s new ability to communicate. Upon learning her daughter’s actual favorite color is red, she brought her a red T-shirt. Angie pressed “Thanks,” and then pressed “Mom.” It was the first time Angie had ever said Mom.

The availability and quality of assistive technology and equipment are integral to the quality of life for residents of all ages, says Jean Shannon, a physical therapist at St. Joseph Home. In addition to switch access scanners and other communication equipment, mobility, standing and gait training devices are life-changers, offering physical as well as social improvements.

At 2½ years of age, Joseph, who was born with severe physical disabilities, once spent his days sitting in a wheelchair or relaxing on a comfortable floor mat between daily activities. Now, with the use of his mobile pediatric stander, he stands and interacts with others at a more socially engaging level. Standers not only enrich a child’s socialization, but they increase upright mobility which is necessary for a wide array of physical, physiological and emotional benefits.

“One of the comments I always hear when Joseph is in his stander is, ‘Oh, my gosh! He is so tall! He is almost at my eye level!’” Shannon says. “To see him standing up and interacting more is a big thing for him. He’s been more mobile, getting out around his community so he has been able to see more people and more of the things he can’t see when he’s sitting in a wheelchair.”

Standing allows everything in children’s bodies to work better, Shannon explains. Gastro-intestinal and urinary systems operate more efficiently, head and trunk control improves and general strengthening by being upright and making small movements is another plus. Even a child’s sense of balance and their visual system improves.

“More interaction with their environment means our residents are learning more about themselves in their environment,” Shannon says. “Depth perception, the relation between their bodies and space, where their joints and muscles come into play – a lot of information is taken in when standing.”

A mobile gait trainer, available for use by students at Bobbie B. Fairfax School in Madisonville where she is a student, has meant a world of difference for 19-year-old Maddie. “It would be wonderful to have that piece of equipment for her at St. Joseph Home,” says Kristen Littles, resident life coordinator. “At school, the gait trainer allows Maddie to stand and, because she is properly supported, walk down the hallways.” Walking improves her motor skills, and allows her to stand and bear weight, thereby breathing better and improving her circulatory system. Maddie also uses a mobile prone stander available to her at school.

“At school, she is used to being up, getting out and around and doing things,” Littles says. “She helps deliver attendance sheets, works at the school’s Snack Shack … the mobile prone stander and gait trainer have opened up a whole new world for her. It would be great to have those two pieces of equipment where she lives.”

Today’s assistive devices are easily adjustable so more than just one resident can use and benefit from one piece of equipment. The equipment is expensive, however, which is the biggest barrier to resident access, says Amy Merritt, director of development and community relations at St. Joseph Home.

St. Joseph Home receives funding from Medicaid that covers the costs of medical care on a per diem rate, Merritt says. They operate on close to $150 per day per resident above the per diem rate paid by Ohio Medicaid. That does not, however, include funds to provide additional or innovative means of therapy. As a value-based not-for-profit, St. Joseph Home subsidizes, through private dollars, all levels of operating. This includes Direct Care, Indirect Care and Capital Costs.

“Those who invest in our residents are helping them reach their fullest potential,” Merritt says. “Gifts made to the St. Joseph Home Possibility Fund help us provide the various resources that are available through technology and skilled therapies, making possibility a reality for our residents. Without the generosity of the broader community, our residents would not have the opportunity to access and learn how to utilize this new and transforming technology.”

St. Joseph Home is located at 10722 Wyscarver Road, Cincinnati, OH 45241. For more information, call 513.563.2520, email or visit