The Chatterbox Fun Fair is on its way to becoming a tradition for the youngest augmented communicators in the Fairfax County Public Schools and their families. Held each May at Kings Glen Elementary School in Springfield, Virginia for the past three years, the fair is a morning of fun, friendship and freedom for preschoolers through fourth graders with communication and physical disabilities. It gives the children the experience of trying new activities while exploring technology—including DynaVox voice-output devices—that can enhance their lives. The fair evolved from the suggestion of the mother of a four-year-old boy who used an augmentative and alternative communication device. After reading an article about a summer camp for augmented communicators and their families, she told school officials that it would benefit her son to have similar opportunities for her son to spend quality time with children who also used AAC during the school year.
Through the effort and imagination of the staff of the Fairfax County Public Schools' Integrated Technology Services (ITS) department and the generosity of the Fairfax County Department of Community and Recreation Services and local businesses, her wish came true. Now, many parents of the 100 or so children who attend the Chatterbox Fun Fair leave the event feeling optimistic about their children's communication journeys.
"I thought the whole thing was really neat," said Diana Draghi, who experienced the fair for the first time this year with her 3-year-old son, Zachary. "It gave kids who are normally isolated from activities the chance to go out and have fun without being stared at. I was impressed with the whole set-up. I definitely would go again."
At this year's fair, students and their families made the rounds to 20 activity stations set up in the school gym. Communication devices displayed at each station allowed students to convey key information while participating in the activity. With the help of a DynaVox3100 at a tattoo station, for example, students chose to have dinosaurs, butterflies, flags and other colorful designs tattooed on their hands by selecting a message on the device.
Students also used a DynaVox to make comments such as "Listen to the sewing machine" and "I want to make another one" at a booth where they created bean bags using a switch-operated sewing machine while a volunteer helped with the finishing touches.
"We try to provide a variety of activities that can be adapted and modified so that a younger child and an older child can participate in the activity and think that it was fun," said Denise Belmont, an assistive technology specialist with the district and co-organizer of the fair.
In a miniature golf game, for example, students of all ages use the same putters. But while older students had to get the ball into a hole in order to score, younger students simply had to hit the ball to a designated spot on the green.
"It's eye-opening and freeing for the parents to say 'Hey, my child is able to do that and be successful at it,'" Belmont said.
Perhaps the most exciting moment of the day was the landing of the helicopter that the Fairfax County Police Department provided. Children, escorted by police officers, took turns sitting in the helicopter. The county fire department also displayed its vehicles while the sheriff's department fingerprinted and took videos of the children. Parents, meanwhile, browsed at an information booth sponsored by the county health department.
But the main attraction for them was the opportunity to see various communication devices in action. They were most pleased to see what AAC could mean to their own children in the future when they met student volunteers Amy Feuerberg and Robert Hazelwood, who used their DynaMyte 3100s to greet the crowd. Fourteen-year-old Amy was attending Stone Middle School at the time.
"She immediately took on the challenge," said her mother, Robyn Feuerberg. "She learned that there are many other children who need devices to communicate. Just like her."
Robert had sentences ranging from "Can I help you find something?" to "I hope you had a good time" programmed into his device for the occasion. The 19-year-old student at Lake Braddock High School has been welcoming fair goers since the event began and plans to return for an encore before his graduation next spring, says his mother, Stephanie Hazelwood.
"He's had a blast at all of them."