Creativity Generosity Science and Technology

Visual learning tool spreads to Asia

Visitors from Hong Kong train in Dunedin to use MoveAhead Software. Photo: Helen Geddes.

Computer software a New Zealand couple invented to teach their son with Down’s Syndrome to read, is now helping often-marginalised children in Asia to communicate.

“Our interest is in these people gaining dignity…and language is a key to that,” Trevor Geddes says.

The Dunedin resident started writing software in 1994 when he and wife Helen realised their son needed visual ways to learn to read. Their MoveAhead Software teaches verbal and written language, and life skills. Using this, even children considered “non verbal” have started to read, write and speak.

MoveAhead Software directors, husband and wife Trevor and Helen Geddes, of Dunedin.

The software’s been used in New Zealand for almost 25 years and now children with special needs in Malaysia and Myanmar are using versions in their languages. Mandarin and Cantonese translations are underway.

The software hasn’t been widely advertised and the way it has spread to Asia is startling. In one instance, Trevor and Helen’s Burmese boarder told them they must visit his country, now known as Myanmar.

When Aung San Suu Kyi’s party was elected to the Burmese Parliament, this boarder’s friend became vice-president. Trevor and Helen travelled to Myanmar and were invited to meet with a Government minister, who then announced that the Government would partner with the New Zealanders to help children with special needs.

At that point I realised that I was going to do a Burmese version of the software,” Trevor says.

The software is impacting individuals and families. In Myanmar, a man shared how his teenage son hit him. Trevor said the man needed to invest in his son learning to read, as only communication would change this. Frustration levels are high for these young people because they cannot communicate clearly.

Helen says visual learning is important if children are “non verbal”. A visual-based learning tool enables students to show what they know, thus gaining confidence.

Trevor adds that children with special needs often learn to read, and through reading, learn to speak. Such children often suffer from behavioural issues and become angry when they can’t communicate.

“A person who can’t communicate, who can’t communicate their needs and desires, becomes frustrated.”

Founded on a generous heart

Generosity is part of MoveAhead’s story. Although busy with work and family, Trevor has put thousands of hours into programming. He says they keep prices affordable. The business only made a profit one year – that year, they slashed prices.

“You don’t want to get confused as to what you exist for,” he says.

Helen says that the Dipton Trust in New Zealand gave a “very generous” grant to translate two programmes into Burmese. Myanmar is a “very poor” country.

Meanwhile last August, 10 people from Hong Kong did a week’s training and have volunteered to translate the software into Cantonese.

Visitors from Hong Kong train in Dunedin to use MoveAhead Software. Photo: Helen Geddes.

Can do attitude

Trevor and Helen have five children and their youngest child, Kevin, was born with Down’s Syndrome. It was the early 1990s. They realised they needed to work with Kevin’s visual strengths and Trevor thought of utilising computers.

His background was as a physicist and he’d done sophisticated scientific computer coding. He says that back when Kevin was a toddler, internet reading programmes were expensive and basic.

I thought, ‘I’ll have to write it myself’.”

So, Trevor wrote a software programme for Kevin. Other families heard about this and the couple formed a business to produce the software.

Collaboration has been another part of MoveAhead’s story. Their webpage promoted the Alphabet programme, which teaches the alphabet through sounds, pictures, videos and games.

A woman whose daughter has Down’s Syndrome wrote from the USA suggesting that Trevor create a US/NZ version, teaching vocabulary through sounds, pictures and videos. This mum’s idea wasn’t commercial enough for US programmers.

This became the Flashcards programme, still used today.

A teacher at the Sara Cohen School in Dunedin suggested an idea and Trevor developed this into StoryMaker, their major selling programme.

Helen says that for children with special needs, the best learning results occur when parents and schools work well together. Children need consistency in their education and parents can help ensure this.

The reason Kevin is a successful reader is that he’s had the continuity since he was at pre-school. He’s used Flashcards since pre-school,” she says.

Now, Kevin is 26 years old and can read several thousand words. Inadvertently, he has also helped children in other countries learn to read.

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