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With slight movement of her eyes, long-disabled woman finally regains her voice


WATERVILLE, N.S. — As her grey-blue eyes move ever so slightly, Joellan Huntley's determination to be heard becomes immediately clear.

Unable to speak or move her body because of catastrophic brain injuries she suffered in a car crash when she was 15, the Nova Scotia woman made headlines last week when her family revealed she had used the latest eye-gaze tracking technology to speak to them for the first time in 21 years.

During a news conference Tuesday at a rehabilitation centre in a rural corner of Nova Scotia, Huntley shifted her eyes as she looked at her computer tablet when a reporter asked her speech language pathologist if the technology had improved in recent years.

"Yes," Huntley said through the computer.

Her mother, Louise Misner, said Huntley made an incredible breakthrough on Christmas Day when the family was visiting the Kings Regional Rehabilitation Centre in Waterville, N.S.

Misner said when she commented on her daughter's new outfit, Huntley responded by using her eyes to point to an image of a short-sleeved shirt on the tablet. 

It wasn't much of a conversation, but it marked a huge milestone for Huntley because she had, for the first time in two decades, expressed herself without any help.

"Her whole world is going to open up now," Misner told reporters. "She knows now what she has to do. Technology renews itself every six months. She'll just keep getting better and better."

Misner said her daughter, having at first selected the image of the short-sleeved shirt, then changed her mind and switched to an image of a long-sleeved shirt.

"She was correcting herself," Misner said, as her daughter looked on from a reclining wheelchair. "The technology has grown, and it has caught up with her, and now she can shine like that Christmas star."

Speech language pathologist Amy Smith said she has been working with Huntley for 12 years, trying different communication techniques. An early version used tongue depressors and rulers with small pictures attached.

"It's been a huge team effort, but Joellan does 99 per cent of the hard work," Smith said. "Our job is to provide her with the tools."

Smith said eye-gaze tracking technology has been used by people with severe speech and mobility challenges for years, but the technology has finally reached the point where it can be used by Huntley.

Before the news conference began, Huntley responded to a short series of yes/no questions from Smith and her assistant Darlene Holmes, her computer speaking for her.

Huntley stopped speaking after she was thrown from a car that had swerved to avoid a dog 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. But the province's Community Services Department tried to claw back the money to cover past and future care costs.  

An undisclosed out-of-court settlement was reached in April 2015 after Joellan'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.

A light mounted on Huntley's computer tablet projects a beam into her eyes, and the reflection is monitored by camera using special software.

"Through a series of filters, algorithms and calculations, it maps out Joellan's eye movement," Smith said.

Huntley now uses a series of six icons to communicate, but Smith said a letter-board will eventually be used to help her convey more complex thoughts.

Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press

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