- Associated Press - Thursday, May 1, 2014

CASPER, Wyo. (AP) - Kelby Watson stood outside his apartment on a cold April morning, scanning the parking lot for his school bus.

The 16-year-old’s mother, Teresa, walked outside to meet him. Kelby looked at her over his shoulder and reached for his voice, which lives inside a big black computer dangling from his neck.

“Hi. Hello. I’m Kelby,” it said in a robotic monotone as Kelby tapped a glowing button on the computer’s touch-screen.

Teresa adjusted the neck strap holding the device, called a Dynavox. It’s Kelby’s “talker,” she says, and it’s programmed with hundreds of words and phrases Kelby uses throughout his day.

“You’re going to get a neck burn,” Teresa said, tucking the hood of Kelby’s sweatshirt between the strap and his skin. She reached a finger to his ear to flick away some lingering wax. Kelby squirmed out of her reach, scrunching his face in disapproval. Teresa smiled.

Without the talker, Teresa said, she would hardly know her son.

Kelby, a sophomore at Kelly Walsh High School in Casper, was born with Down syndrome, a genetic disorder that, in Kelby’s case, stunted his vocal cords and left him almost entirely without speech.

The Natrona County School District provides Kelby and special needs students like him with the devices they need to read, communicate and learn each year. Kelby’s device, which is brand-new this school year, cost about $9,000, said Eric Freeman, assistive technologies strategist for the district.

The district spent $55,000 in federal funds to buy technology for special needs students this year. Technology can range from rubber grips to help students tighten their hold on a pencil to portable devices that transcribe speech into text for students who cannot type, Freeman said.

Such devices help students function in mainstream classrooms and interact with their peers in hallways, in the gym and on the bus, Freeman said.

Without them, students like Kelby would live in a different, more isolated world.

When he sees a school bus, Kelby’s first instinct is to run.

As the bus approached Kelby’s apartment one recent Tuesday, Teresa gripped the back of his hoodie. The bus groaned to a halt and Kelby walked fast to the steps.

Teresa waved. Kelby waved back from his window seat, flopping his hand backward like he was motioning for her to join him.

An assistant checked Kelby’s seat belt as he fidgeted for his words on the talker.

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