I came across this story on an internal company newsletter this week, and think it's worth sharing. It's all about a free software application a colleague has developed, to help develop fine motor skills in disabled children...
When Guy Barker demoed his handwriting-assistance software, called HerbiWriter, to my colleagues last week, he expected many to be underwhelmed, because the concept is so simple. Guy’s programme, developed over 150 hours of his own time, is helping students with developmental and physical challenges learn to form letters on Tablet PCs.
“It’s been extremely gratifying,” said Barker, who has worked on simple accessibility programs in his spare time for more than three years. “For a long time, I got no validation. I wondered whether I had good ideas or was just wasting time. … It seems to me that both on the software and hardware side of things, we should be able to help people with disabilities more than we are. This is an underserved community.”
Down Syndrome Student Does Victory Dance
Susan Thompson, a Dallas-based occupational therapist, contacted the Tablet PC developers’ alias about a year ago, asking if a program existed to help people develop handwriting skills. Her inquiry inspired Barker, then with the Tablet team, to design HerbiWriter.
Getting schoolchildren to practice handwriting used to be pure drudgery, Thompson said. “The kids hated it. I didn’t enjoy it.” Now she uses the software to aid kids who have autism, cerebral palsy, or other challenges.
“Kids just keep trying without getting frustrated. … When they see me coming … with my Tablet PC, they’re excited to work with HerbiWriter. They’re learning the letters because they like to … see Herbi smile. It’s really transformed my therapy for the better,” Thompson said.
The software, which Barker made with Visual Studio.NET and C#, demonstrates proper letter formation, and then asks children to replicate letter strokes. Kids accumulate points in a game-like approach that offers positive reinforcement from a dragon named Herbivore – Herbi for short.
Herbi’s encouragement goes a long way with one of Thompson’s students, who has Down syndrome. “To my delight and surprise, he was able to watch the letter formation and replicate it. He’d do a dance every time he got it right,” Thompson said.
Such feedback “knocked me off my feet,” Barker said. “I find it hard to believe such simple software could be so helpful to the students.”
Students without disabilities could benefit from HerbiWriter, too, Thompson added. Kids who play more with repetitive motion-based video games and less with toys that require manipulation might lack the fine motor skills required for proper handwriting. Often children in early elementary grades get referred to occupational therapists to correct bad habits.