Woman with eye-tracking software communicates with mom for first time since 1996

Using eye-motion camera and tablet software, breakthrough occurred during Christmas Day visit.

A Nova Scotia amendment would have protected Joellan Huntley from government clawbacks. CTV News Atlantic

By Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press, CBC News Nova Scotia December 29, 2017

In what her mother calls a “Christmas miracle,” a Nova Scotia woman who suffered a catastrophic brain injury in a 1996 car accident communicated one-on-one with her mother for the first time in 21 years.

Louise Misner said her 37-year-old daughter Joellan Huntley used eye-motion cameras and software on a tablet to respond to a comment from Misner about her clothes.

Huntley has been severely disabled since she was 15, unable to walk or talk and is fed through a tube. She has always responded to family members’ presence by making sounds, but was unable to communicate any thoughts.

The breakthrough occurred during a Christmas Day visit at the Kings Regional Rehabilitation Centre in Waterville, N.S.

“I said, ‘Joellan, I like your new Christmas outfit you got on,”‘ Misner said in a telephone interview on Friday.

Louise Misner told reporters that she never doubted the day would come when she would be able to communicate with her daughter again. CBC

Misner said her daughter then used the technology to find an icon for a short-sleeved shirt.

“And then she said no, and went to a long-sleeve shirt because she was trying to tell me what she had on.”

Misner said her reaction to the long-hoped-for communication was immediate.

“Christmas miracle,” she said. “It was God’s way of telling me that she’s finally achieved what she needed to since the accident.”

Settlement helped buy technology
Huntley was thrown from a car that had swerved to avoid a dog running loose along a road in Centreville, N.S., on April 18, 1996. The accident claimed the life of her boyfriend and a young girl who was the sister of the driver.

Huntley’s family eventually won a $1-million insurance settlement as a result of the crash, but by 2014 they found themselves embroiled in a court battle with the province’s Community Services Department, which sought to claw back the money for past and future care costs.

Joellan Huntley gives her most precise answers when she can choose from six icons on the screen. But the technology will be able to grow with her as she hones her ability to communicate. Rob Short CBC

An undisclosed out-of-court settlement was reached in April 2015, after Huntley’s family argued they needed the money for care that included physiotherapy and special equipment that would add to her quality of life.

Misner said the settlement money helped the family purchase the computer equipment she is now using with the help of a speech pathologist.

“We had to go through two or three different screens until we found the right one for her, and it’s called Eyegaze. Her eyes focus on the icons to answer questions.”

Misner said one of Huntley’s nurses told them she is “doing really well with it.”

“I knew she just needed time for technology to catch up with her,” Misner said. “When God gives you a child, they are the most precious thing and you never give up on them and you always fight for them.”

Source CBC News

Technology can grow with Huntley
By Emma Davie, CBC News Nova Scotia January 02, 2018

“It is a huge team effort. Joellan does 99 per cent of the hard work in all of this and our job is to provide her the tools,” Amy Smith told reporters Tuesday.

“The breakthrough on Christmas Day was that the system was set up for her and she was completely independent; there was no one else facilitating that conversation with her,” she said. “It was just a natural conversation she had with her mom, like anyone else would.”

Speech language pathologist Amy Smith, who’s worked with Huntley for 12 years, explained that while Huntley is currently using pictures to communicate, she believes Huntley can read. She said her best and most precise answers are when there are six pictures on a screen.

But the system has the ability to grow with the user, and has a setting for identifying letters. In theory, Huntley would one day be able to spell out her own words.

“We’ve used it, we’ve tried. Joellan really likes a challenge. So she works really hard when those boards are up. But we’re just not quite there yet with her practice to be able to be that precise with the icons,” Smith said.

Misner said her daughter will be able to bring the computer system home with her on visits once they build a mount to attach it to her wheelchair.

“Joellan wanted to go into medicine; now her star’s going to shine. And she’s going to help all the others like her.”

Read more in CBC News

Also see
With slight movement of her eyes, long-disabled woman finally regains her voice in The New Glasgow News
‘Her whole world is going to open up,’ N.S. woman says of brain injured daughter’s breakthrough in CBC News
Nova Scotia tries to claw back settlement for disabled woman in CBC News
Amendment would have protected Joellan Huntley from government clawbacks in CTV News
Family of brain-injured woman grateful for deal reached with N.S. government in CTV News

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