Maker Mom’s Invention Helps Her Daughter and Other Visually Impaired Children

Visually impaired people around the world are utilizing LightAide as an educational tool.
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Visually impaired people around the world are utilizing LightAide as an educational tool.

Catherine Rose’s daughter Alexis is both hearing and visually impaired. Her experiences with her daughter’s disabilities motivated her to seek out a career with a company that was improving people’s lives, which led her to accept a job at Philips in their healthcare division.

Rose noticed her daughter’s attraction to lights and convinced her employer to build a teaching tool to help visually impaired children learn. LightAide is now being used around the world by visually impaired people of all ages, and, just as importantly, by their teachers and caregivers, who are beginning to realize their charges might have better cognitive abilities than previously thought.

“There’s a whole lot of people who have vision, but they have low vision,” Rose said. “They can’t see as well in the light that we normally give them. But if we give them more light, then they may be able to use more vision.”

Read more of Not Impossible Now’s interview with Rose below:

LightAide

Photo courtesy of LightAide

NIN: Your daughter Alexis is visually impaired. What’s her relationship to light?

Catherine Rose: We had the traditional toys that all had very little light on them and some sort of sound, and she was moderately interested in a lot of them. But what we found was as long as it had a bright enough light on it and a sound component, she loved it.

When she about two years old, my dad said what if I get out my light-up keyboard for Alexis? She has a combined hearing and visual impairment, so I didn’t know what she would think of it. Lo and behold, she loved it. She refused to leave it. I’d try to pick her up and she’d hunch down, like you can’t pick me up, I’m not moving, I’m not going or if I’m going I’m taking this with me! So we got her one.

She pays really close attention to lights on in a room versus lights off in a room. She gets really scared in dark spaces and even our church has a really high ceiling, so the lighting is fine ambient lighting for all of us, but it’s really spooky for her because she can’t see the roof and she can’t tell where the light is.

Do you get the sense that she’s negotiating her space and where she is in that space relating to the light source?

Rose: Yes, it’s like a beacon. The way some blind people learn space is by walking around the perimeter of a room, and it’s almost like she’s using light as her perimeter finder. If a room isn’t bright enough, she won’t go into it and she’ll cry. I think she uses light to get a sense of space and where things are. When she went to the Philips showroom for the very first time, she was like, “Thanks mom, you made the walls light up so I can see exactly where they are. Why haven’t you done this before?”

LightAide

Photo courtesy of LightAide

How did you get the project started?

Rose: There are a lot of [disabled] kids who light gaze, they’ll spend their day in a classroom staring at a light on the ceiling. It’s not a preferred thing for them to do because there’s no information coming from a light on the ceiling. When Alexis enrolled at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts, they had this modified toy, basically Christmas tree lights they’d put on a board. They hooked it up so when a kid hit a switch, the lights would come on. It’s teaching kids cause and effect. But what I realized is that those lights are so dim, the kids weren’t really engaging with it. I knew what Alexis did with the light up keyboard and I thought those are much brighter, she’s much closer to the lights, she can see them better and we should be able to get bright lights for these kids. That’s when I took the idea to Philips to make a LightAide.

How did the project develop?

Rose: Philips built three of out spare parts, things hanging around the lab, and we took them to Perkins and had the teachers work with them and got all their feedback and really watched them, how they used it, what they wanted it to do, how we could improve it, what they needed more of.

What they suggested to us from the very first was we needed more educational content — more early literacy training, more capability for the students to do math and numbers. We made two more prototypes and we used nonprofit educational research group TERC. They helped with the questionnaires and surveys for the teachers and getting information … we wanted to meet at the point where the LightAide would make sense for the teachers.

So it developed from being a pretty simple unit that looked good into something that had pedagogical value as well. What are some examples of kids using a LightAide?

Rose: I got a really great video recently of kid using a LightAide to work on the concept of longer and shorter. We have an activity on it that compares the lengths of lines — the top line has eight dots lit up and the bottom line has five dots lit up — and she could tell by either counting the dots or watching the lights to figure out which one was shorter and longer. What was neat was about halfway in — she’s verbal — the teacher asked, “Tell me how you normally compare lengths of lines?” The student says, “With my fingers.” Because normally she’s a Braille reader and the only way she could interact with math was really with her fingers.

I tell people that LightAide is sort of like giving hearing aids to a hearing impaired person. What we normally do with someone who is vision impaired is we go straight from you’re vision impaired to Braille. What’s missing is there’s a whole lot of people who have vision, but they have low vision. They can’t see as well in the light that we normally give them. But if we give them more light, then they may be able to use more vision.

LightAide

Photo courtesy of LightAide

Since you’ve launched the final version, what has been the feedback from teachers?

Rose: Their response is really amazing. The interaction that they get, the interest they get from the students to maintain attention on a task is great. They’ve told me they didn’t have something like this to engage the kids we’re engaging today, we didn’t know these kids knew these things and we didn’t have a way to gauge that they knew these things. That to me is really amazing because that’s exactly what we want. I don’t want someone sitting in front of a LightAide eight or sixteen hours a day. But what I want is for the teachers and the staff and especially for the parents, to go, my kid’s in there. I know that they know this stuff, so let’s push them even harder. Let’s give them that next challenge.

We had a kid who was doing at 9 months old something the occupational therapist was not expecting until 18 months. Here was a milestone a typical peer would be doing at 9 months and the therapist thought this kid is far behind so we don’t start on something until 18 months. Well, lo and behold, this kid was showing, I get this. I know how this works, I know cause and effect and I know if I hit the button, the lights are going to switch off. For me, that’s the fantastic part.

So the kids have this outlet and another method of learning, but it also provides a way to communicate to their teachers and caregivers what they’re capable of.

Rose: Some of the kids who interact with LightAide are nonverbal and this is the very first time they’re showing cognitive capabilities, and it’s cool to watch. I try to not to sound too hokey, but it’s really amazing to hear these stories.

Do you think the LightAide is something people can use during their entire lives?

Rose: We have a lady who’s 35 years old in Australia, who reads Braille and talks but had never seen the shape of letters. She’s using everything on LightAide as it is, but most especially the literacy stuff to learn the shapes of letters and just be able, it doesn’t really matter for her, she’s still a Braille user, she can still talk. But it makes sense for her because she can go oh, that’s what an A looks like. 

Learn more about LightAide by visiting their website and by watching the video below:

Top photo caption: Catherine Rose and her daughter Alexis. (Photo credit: Catherine Lacey Photography)