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January 12, 2017 | Tom Ballard

UT’s Rebecca Koszalinski says her “heart is with people who have disabilities”

speak-for-myself-2By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

“My heart is with people who have disabilities,” Rebecca Koszalinski, an Assistant Professor of Nursing at the University of Tennessee’s (UT) Knoxville campus, says.

The former faculty member at Florida Atlantic University (FAU), who joined UT’s College of Nursing in fall 2015, explained that she understands first-hand the experience individuals with disabilities have. She is a former gymnast who ended-up in a wheelchair for a period in her life after an injury.

That passion for those with disabilities and her real-life experience led Koszalinski to develop an app – Speak for Myself – specifically targeted for people who are intubated or have afflictions like cerebral palsy and spinal bifida that render them unable to communicate with others.

Using an iPad or Android tablet, the app that she developed provides a means whereby the individual can communicate pain, fear, anxiety, loneliness or other matters to caregivers and nurses. The menu includes some standard phrases the individual can select, but it can also be customized.

Koszalinski has done considerable research and testing for Version 1 and is making plans to develop a second generation app.

Her journey to provide a resource for those who could not communicate started when she took some of her students at FAU to learn how to work with participants in an initiative in Palm Beach County called “Pathways to Independence.” The program, launched in 2000, assists people with significant physical and/or communication disabilities function as independently as possible.

Many of those patients suffer from cerebral palsy.

“I wanted them (my students) to see people who were cognitive even though they could not communicate,” she explains. When one of the students commented that a patient “was not in there,” Koszalinski says she found her life calling.

She worked with the Pathways organization to develop the menu that enables an individual to easily use the app.

“I took what they said, validated it and did a proof on concept,” Koszalinski says. The testing was done in three Florida hospitals, and 95 percent of the patients said they liked it. She also secured input from nurses and other professionals who work with those who cannot communicate.

“I was cautioned so many times that people with cerebral palsy could not use it,” Koszalinski says. The results clearly disprove the naysayers.

So, how does it work? There are several YouTube videos that explain it. You can access all three here.

For example, there are standard requests such as seeing a doctor, nurse or family member or asking for help, food, water or medicine. The individual simply selects the appropriate item. There’s also a diagram of the body where the patient can indicate the area and level of pain. It can also be customized.

The first proof on concept of the Speak for Myself app was completed in mid-2010, and a working prototype was developed the next year. Additional features have been added such as multiple languages and an ability to select a male or female voice.

With additional funding secured earlier this year from UT, Koszalinski is making plans for an improved app even as she continues testing improvements here in East Tennessee.

“We keep getting validation that this is needed,” she says. “I want it available for anyone who needs to use it.”


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