It's all in the eyes

Deon Nel has been locked inside his own body for six years, but the recent discovery of an exciting technology now available in South Africa means that, for the first time, he has hope. Deon’s wife, Bernice, explains “I just wanted Deon to be able to communicate more independently – and even to be able to alert me in an emergency. I’m a nervous wreck and sleep with one eye open all the time.” When she heard of a computer controlled by eye movements, she was excited. In September Deon used his eyes to type his name, his first independent communication in six years.

“I was so impressed with the Tobii,” said Bernice. “It wiped out the disappointment he has experienced with other gadgets that just did not work for him”. Manufactured in Sweden, the Tobii C12 is a sophisticated yet compact piece of technology. A 31cm computer screen, with integrated eye control module, allows users to look at the screen while the mouse follows their eye movements. To select an item users keep their gaze still for about a second. The device can be wheelchair or bed mounted. Based on Windows, it allows users to send e-mails, write documents, surf the Net, read, shop online, watch DVDs, listen to music and play games. Infrared environmental control capability enables users to control other devices in their home such as changing the TV channel or switching a lamp on and off.

Most importantly it allows people to speak. Deon looked at the letters on the screen to type his name which was then spoken aloud by the system. Deon’s words were loud and clear! Finally! A successful and independent communication solution. The Tobii C12 SIM card slot also allows Deon to send messages to mobile phones.

Eye control is typically used by people who cannot speak and who also have limited - or no - functional movement, such as those with locked-in syndrome, and people who have had a spinal injury or stroke and are consequently quadriplegic. Persons with conditions that cause erratic or uncontrollable movements (as with Athetoid Cerebral Palsy) also find using their eyes easier. Conditions that lead to unusual, or limited, eye movements (such as Nystagmus) – or even just one eye - can also use the system as it is customised to each user’s individual abilities.

The Tobii devices are also popular assessment tools. With their touch screen, integrated switch ports, USB ports and eye control option they are an all-in-one device offering multiple access and assessment methods. Trauma Units, hospital staff and therapists are now able to offer newly paralysed patients an easy and comfortable way of asking questions and making requests whilst, simultaneously, assessing their cognitive functions.

Such advanced technology comes at a price though, about R150.000 for the unit that Deon needs. His family have managed to fundraise for Deon’s device, which will hopefully arrive by December. In the USA, UK, Europe, Australia, Scandinavia and Japan government departments often fund the devices but, in South Africa, they are yet to be listed as medical aid funded devices.

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