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Close Encounters with Science: Picks

Jacob Speaks by Marcy White

It took eight years but I never gave up.

Like most parents, I eagerly anticipated my child’s first words. Unlike most parents, I was told by doctors that my son would never talk. Despite Jacob’s many health and development challenges, I knew he had a lot to say. I was determined to find the key that would unlock a world of communication for him.

It was August of 2010 when I wheeled my son into a small room in the children’s rehabilitation center. I positioned Jake in his wheelchair at one end of the table and sat down beside him. Tom, a biomedical engineer, sat across from us. The others hovered by the doorway. They were all eager to see what would happen, but they kept a respectful distance, not wanting to overwhelm or scare my son.

I wasn’t expecting this meeting to be a pinnacle moment in our lives.

After an introduction to the engineers assembled by the doorway, Tom gave Jacob an iPod that had been specifically designed for him. It looked like a regular iPod Touch, but it featured a jack that would attach a Jellybean switch—a palm-sized device that resembled a green M&M. Instead of music, this iPod was programmed with messages from the communication book that Jacob’s family and teachers routinely used with him.

Jacob was told that if he pressed the switch, the iPod would scroll through his familiar messages. When Jake heard the message he wanted, he was to push his switch again. The iPod would announce his choice. My son didn’t need to wait for someone to ask him questions anymore.

I asked Jacob if he had something to say. Finally, with all the effort he could muster—any type of movement is painfully slow and hard for him—he lowered his little hand onto the green switch. The mechanical voice of the iPod, a proxy for my son, stated: “I want a great big hug.”
It took me a moment to process what had just occurred. As my eyes filled with tears, I reached over the side of Jacob’s wheelchair and gave him the biggest hug I could. While I was holding him, I heard the voices of the all naysayers in my head, telling me that this moment would never arrive. My son was finally able to communicate and the first thing he chose to say was that he wanted a hug from me.

When I pulled away to look at Jacob’s face and tell him how proud I was of him, I wasn’t sure if his enormous grin was because he’d received the hug he requested or because he knew that I finally understood what he wanted.

It hardly mattered. On that warm summer day, in that room filled with strangers, my eight-year-old son uttered his first words.


Marcy White is from Toronto, ON.

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