Power in the eye of the beholder

A breakthrough technology is helping non-verbal Perkins students use their limited vision to communicate

A student and teacher do an activity on a computer screen.

Eye gaze technology allows Emily to control a computer using only her existing vision. Photo Credit: Anna Miller.

September 25, 2015

At her weekly computer class, Emily has created colorful drawings of wand-wielding wizards, quirky robots and friendly dragons. Because she lacks physical strength in her arms, Emily doesn’t use a mouse to operate the painting program – she uses her eyes instead.

She does it with eye gaze technology. It uses a small video camera to track Emily’s eye movements, allowing her to control a computer cursor simply by looking at it. Originally developed for adults with spinal cord injuries, eye gaze technology is proving equally useful in the classroom at Perkins School for the Blind.

“It’s for the kids who can’t use the touchscreen and can’t reliably access a switch,” said Wendy Buckley, a teacher in Perkins’ Deafblind Program. “These are kids who don’t have a reliable means of communication. They can’t tell me much about themselves, their feelings, their ideas. I might not even know for certain what they can see.”

Emily has cortical visual impairment (CVI), which means she has some vision but her brain has difficulty processing visual information. Because of other cognitive impairments, she is non-verbal and does not use sign language. Her physical disabilities make it difficult for her to use her arms or sit up straight for long periods of time.

Whenever possible, teachers encourage students like Emily to use their functional vision to engage with the world around them. For this, eye gaze technology has been a game-changer, giving students the power to make decisions and communicate.

“With this, Emily can look at the option she prefers, and cause something to happen just by looking at it,” said Buckley. “She can make a choice and express herself.”

In a recent class, Emily watched an orange cat move across the screen in front of her, purring and meowing when her gaze was focused directly on it. If she looked away, the cat would sit, silently, in place. A year ago, Emily might not have engaged with the program. Now, she giggled and waved her arms as music played, focusing intently until the cat moved off the screen.

This is progress Buckley likes to see. 

“When we first started she wasn’t really looking at a lot of things, she wasn’t using her vision a lot,” Buckley said. “Now, when she likes an activity, she’s a completely different person. She’s totally animated, she’s making sounds.”

The eye gaze software comes with a built-in assessment tool, so teachers can track improvements and student preferences. Emily is at her best when she’s drawing – filling in black and white stencils with color by moving a virtual paint brush across the screen. When she’s filled the entire picture, it comes to life in front of her, offering a reward for a job well done.  

“Her reaction is just delightful because she clearly understands it and is very proud of the fact that she has done it,” said Buckley. “It’s fun to see.”

Down the line, eye gaze technology could become a way for students like Emily to make more advanced choices, like what color shirt to wear or what game to play. It could also help her teachers and family learn more about her thoughts and preferences.  

“She’s not at a point where she can express a lot through language,” said Buckley. “But over time maybe eye gaze is going to start to fill in that gap. It’s a powerful tool.”