The long-awaited first word

Srna is one of the children who have received the Communicator thanks to UNICEF’s For every child, a voice project.

Vladimir Banić
21 October 2020

Pancevo, Serbia - Four-year-old Srna Staic is sitting on the living room sofa, surrounded by toys and a blue device that looks like a tablet. She keeps tapping on it determinedly and then turns to her mom smiling. This “blue device” is a Cboard Communicator that helped her start pronouncing understandable syllables for the first time. After using it for eight months, she started speaking entire words. While Srna is tapping on the Communicator, we hear the words "play", followed by "white teddy". This clearly means that she wants to play with her mother with the white teddy.

Ivana Markovic, Srna's mom, recalls the first time her daughter talked to her, after several months of using the communicator with the support of a speech therapist from the Day Hospital of the Institute for Mental Health in Belgrade:

At one point she was upset, and I handed her the communicator and asked, ‘what do you want?’ Until then, Srna has never asked to eat. Those are huge things for children with a [developmental] problem,” Ivana says emotionally. “Every mother of a child with developmental disabilities can't wait for her child to start speaking and when it happens, the feeling is wonderful.

Srna Staic, 4, with the Cboard Communicator
UNICEF Srbija/2020/Vaš

The Cboard Communicator, is a free app that can be downloaded from the Google Play Store and installed on any Android tablet. It is used by children and adults with speech and language impairments, aiding communication with symbols and text-to-speech, in this case, into Serbian. Each family, together with an expert, evaluates and monitors the extent to which the Communicator is the best support for the child.

UNICEF Srbija/2020/Vaš

Srna is one of the children who have received the Communicator thanks to UNICEF’s For every child, a voice project. The aim is to increase the availability of augmentative and alternative communication technologies (AAC) or facilitated communication (FC) for young children with complex speech and communication needs, as well as to train professionals for work on assistive technologies with children from the earliest age, as well as their parents and caregivers. UNICEF has trained more than 40 professionals on how to support families and children from an early age to use the Communicator in everyday communication.

Srna's mother, Ivana, says that in addition to overcoming her communication inhibitions, Srna is now leaving behind emotional inhibitions as well. “She is so happy when she is able to say something, when she expresses any emotion. There are very few of those instances [now] when she screams or when she is anxious because she doesn't know how to express something she wants to say.”

Natasa Milenkovic Sreckovic, a speech therapist working with Srna and her family, says that Srna keeps saying new words every day and that she is able to communicate with her parents about her wishes and needs, as well as to play with her parents and participate in all family routines. She believes that Srna's speech development progress was greatly influenced by the fact that her parents made an effort to use the Communicator in all situations, but also by the fact that they started using it at an early age.

"Using assistive technology can be very useful and important for children at an early age. [Srna’s] parents were very successful in using the communicator because they used it, not only when working with experts during their sessions, but at home, every day, all day. [They used the communicator] when they were engaged in daily routines, during meals, when playing or reading stories. Ultimately, that’s what helped this girl to develop verbal communication skills,” explains Natasa.

Srna and Natasa, her speech therapist, are working together.
UNICEF Srbija/2020/Vaš

During a break in their game, Srna is clearly telling her mom words such as "moon", "baby", "to eat". Ivana says that she is quite sure that what helped Srna was starting to use the Communicator at an early age.

“I think the right moment is crucial when it comes to children with developmental disabilities. But with them, sometimes, you don’t know what the right moment is. And sometimes it doesn't hurt to start something even much earlier because that right moment might come earlier”, Ivana believes.

Ivana Marković, Srna's mom, with Srna while they are using the communicator
UNICEF Srbija/2020/Vaš

Many children like Srna have difficulties developing communication and speaking skills. That is why UNICEF Serbia, in cooperation with partners, is developing and piloting the first Communicator in the Serbian language to support children. The Cboard Communicator, with around 600 of the most frequently used words by young children, was successfully piloted in 50 families in three cities in Serbia. This was achieved in cooperation with representatives of academic institutions and practitioners from the health and education sectors and in coordination with the school for primary and secondary education Milan Petrovic.

The UNICEF Innovation Fund supported the development of Cboard through Cireha to allow completely free access to assistive technologies that support communication. The UNICEF Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia, in cooperation with the UNICEF Innovation Fund and Country Offices in Serbia, Croatia and Montenegro, piloted the use of Cboard adapted to the languages of the region. Thanks to this initiative, more than 120 children with communication difficulties have been supported to overcome speech and communication problems and to participate in education and other social activities from an early age. Encouraged by the excellent results in the first 3 countries, UNICEF will continue to support the expansion of the use of this solution in other countries in the region.