gamut (2005-36)

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HeartSong has Soul, Too

Michael Ward takes to the drum with fervor.

Lois Symington has been directing ETTAC for 17 years.

HeartSong has Soul, Too

by Barry Henderson

Walking into the studio housed at the East Tennessee Technology Access Center in the corner of a Broadway strip mall, the austerity of its scattered jumble of devices, wires and racks strikes the first-time visitor. It’s not instantly inspiring.

Almost immediately, however, its rooms are lit up by emotion, by the delight in the eyes of its disabled patrons and the enthusiasm of the

ETTAC is the purveyor of the possible, encouraging people of all ages and descriptions and physical disadvantages to meet, and exceed, their own expectations and those of their families and friends with the help of an array of electronics and the tools of music, art, and general learning. The eldest served by ETTAC, a woman with a hearing impairment, died recently at 108, says Lois Symington, the center’s executive director, and the youngest currently assisted is 15 months. No one is too old or too young to have a need that the center’s staff won’t attempt to help them fill, says Alice Wershing, ETTAC’s educational technology coordinator.

The center reaches 24 counties in East Tennessee. It’s funded in part by the state’s Division of Rehabilitation Services, the Tennessee Education Department’s Early Intervention component, and United Way efforts in Knox, Jefferson and Blount Counties. ETTAC serves from 500 to 600 persons at any given time—on an annual budget of about $450,000—a remarkable achievement. Additional fundraising events, such as this Saturday’s HeartSong Festival on Market Square and a benefit golf tournament each June, bring in a few thousand dollars at a time, and the center gets some discounts on technological equipment by doing some testing for tech developer/vendors, but what they do with less than a half-million dollars is amazing to see.

About half of the clients are children, and the ETTAC HeartSong program, with music and visual arts segments, is especially effective in gaining the attention and participation of the young. They learn how to paint and create and to make music, with stringed and percussion instruments and vocals, as they develop the most basic of functions with the aid of ETTAC personnel and their computers and other materials. Their music ranges from “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider” through “Rocky Top” and Elvis tunes, and their glee in being part of the music is more than evident in their infectious, open-mouthed grins and belly laughs.

The staff and their clients employ state-of-the-art technology and help in the development of new technologies to enhance speech, hearing, eyesight and motor skills. Besides hearing or eyesight or speech faults, the ETTAC staff works with kids and adults contending with the effects of such disorders as autism, cerebral palsy and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease). “Communication is often the key,” says Symington, who has been at ETTAC since its 1988 inception and, once communication is established, whatever other limitations are faced by the disabled can be addressed much more easily, she says.

“We adapt everything, from home, to school, to workplace,” she says as she demonstrates a hand-held speech-

“It’s all about expectations—insistence that clients try to overcome frustrations and do...and repeat....” tasks that may seem fundamental but can increasingly become more complex, she says. The accomplishments, rewarded by praise and encouragement, bring forth waves of joy on the faces of clients, especially the children.


Symington says a singular moment she will always remember was “seeing a youngster who could not focus on anything at all become mesmerized by a recording of Marian Anderson, the singer.” The opera great was belting out a rendition of the blues classic, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” and the kindergartner sat gazing at the speaker until the last note, entranced by her voice and the song.

That child has made great strides in learning to concentrate his mind on other things besides music, she says. His kindergarten teachers had given up on him, and he’s now, like many of the ETTAC/HeartSong clients, being home-schooled by his parents.

“I don’t know what I would have done without Alice and Lois,” says Susan Lait, the Sevierville mother of another young client. Her daughter, Leah, now 15, has a severe speech disability. The girl, who has been at ETTAC for 10 years, darts about the center as though it’s home to her but settles down to show off her ability to “talk” through a simulator that responds to her touch commands and speaks for her, with Wershing following along and replying to her, since her hearing is unaffected.

Leah’s school district provides consultations with therapists, evaluations, and software to be used in the home and at the ETTAC center, her mother says. She says the progress Leah’s made has been truly gratifying to her and her husband, a general contractor. Susan Lait, a former corrections supervisor, has been a full-time mom from Leah’s early years and is now her teacher as well.

Michele Ward, whose 7-year-old son Michael has a malady known as severe global ataxia, wherein his thoughts don’t transfer to motion or speech without rigorous practice and repetition, says he began in the public education sector in special-ed pre-school. “It didn’t go well,” she says. “They told us he’d never talk at all,” she says, as Michael picks out games and toys he likes at the ETTAC center and discusses them in rudimentary, but understandable, terms. “Now we’re working toward reading and writing,” says Ward, a hospital pharmacist who works evenings. Her husband, Eric, an engineer with DeRoyal Industries, takes over while she’s at work. Both are assisted at their Karns home by Michael’s two older brothers, and they hire UT students, including a nursing major and a theater major, who work with him part-time in speech and hearing therapy. Although Michael hears well, he has trouble differentiating between words and their connections in sentences, his mother says.

Of the ETTAC/HeartSong experience, she says, “It’s meant a lot. We were at a desperate point frustration-wise when we came here three years ago, and it was instantly helpful. He has come a long way.... We’re close, a lot closer than a lot of people thought we’d ever get,” she says, as Michael plays a game of “air golf” on a board constructed by an ETTAC board member. Michael’s father also has made some special toys for his son, using his engineering abilities to adapt the items to Michael’s own progress.

With the adult disabled, the ETTAC staff works on job preparation and training and on special technical assistance to allow for independent living.

“One young man with cerebral palsy had two goals when he came here seven years ago: to live on his own and to read. Now in his late 20s, he lives on his own and reads a book a week,” says Symington. “He’s into The Hardy Boys’ series,” Wershing says.

“We’re using technology to show what people are capable of,” says Alice Wershing, and the results sometimes surprise even the ETTAC staff. The center’s motto is “Where Disability Becomes Possibility,” and Wershing says the possibilities that emerge and the triumphs that they represent are endless.

Metro Pulse is a co-sponsor of the HeartSong Festival —The Editor

What: HeartSong Festival of Tennessee Treasures. The children of the HeartSong Center for Accessible Music & Art, with art/music/dance experiences for other children from 1-4 p.m. Plus, a silent auction of music and art collectibles from across the country, and entertainment from 4-10 p.m. by Dishwater Blonde, Jenna and the Joneses, Scott Miller, Artvandalay, and Sparky and Rhonda Rucker

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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