For Carlos Ruiz, the beauty of life lies in participating. He finds and gives joy whether telling jokes, taking pictures of friends or rooting for his favorite soccer* team. Sometimes the happiness multiplies, like when he won a match against a player with a much higher ranking at the 46th National Chess Congress tournament in Philadelphia Thanksgiving weekend.
It happened again when he performed with his high school classmates in the winter concert at Jardine Academy this holiday season. Carlos, 15, participates in all of these activities using a Tobii Dynavox I-12 communication device he works with his eyes.
Jorge and Yesica Ruiz moved from Peru to the United States eight years ago and settled in Roselle, NJ. They came seeking better resources to help Carlos, their only child, manage various challenges including mobility, speech and hearing loss related to his cerebral palsy. The journey has not been disappointing.
All along, chess has been Carlos’ #1 passion and priority. Yesica often teases that he began playing the game in the womb. All joking aside, Carlos was three years old when his parents caught him spying a book on chess at home. Within the next two years, Jorge showed his son how the game is played. Carlos would sit on his father’s lap every day, learning chess moves by heart. Jorge made cards illustrating the chess pieces. There were also cards numbered 1-8 and letters A-H corresponding with locations on the game board. Carlos, who cannot speak or hold objects with his hands, indicated his desired moves by nodding or gazing toward the cards. Another person helped him hold the piece or physically moved it for him.
It was a labor of love and a privilege for Jorge to teach Carlos and watch his skill evolve. They developed a practice routine that Carlos still keeps. Jorge gives him chess problems to solve during the week. On weekends, Carlos plays computer chess. He often studies videos of the game’s great masters.
Soon after he got the I-12 in 2014, Carlos rocked the chess world. Speech-language pathologist Lauren Davidson, M.A. CCC-SLP, saw his potential and championed his dream of playing his favorite game competitively. She borrowed Carlos’ new device for a weekend and created a chess page for it.
“I had to learn a little bit about chess, all the moves and maneuvers,” said Mrs. Davidson, whose caseload at Jardine includes several Tobii Dynavox users. “My goal was to make it as easy as possible for him and to have every combination of moves.”
Until that point, accompanied his dad to tournaments and even taught his cousins to play chess. Now, through technology, he proves on a larger scale that he can hold his own while playing against unfamiliar able-bodied competitors of all ages and backgrounds. When he joins his father for United States Chess Federation and Continental Chess Association tournaments along the East Coast (father and son play separately), Carlos sits on a booster seat in his manual wheelchair so he can face his opponents squarely despite his small frame. He uses his custom page on the I-12 to tell an assistant (usually his mom) where to move his pieces, adjusting the volume on the device for minimal disruption to other players during the matches, as club officials requested. Carlos naturally draws a lot of interest at the events as word of his unique abilities is gets out.
“He definitely has made a name for himself,” said Jardine principal Cynthia Isaksen, recalling when she announced Carlos’ victory at a Washington D.C. tournament and asked him to talk about the experience during a school assembly — using the I-12, of course.
There’s “definitely a huge difference” in his interactions when the device is with him, Mrs. Isaksen said. “He is a typical teenage boy. He likes to be funny and he likes to be heard. If he doesn’t have that device, he certainly feels it.”
Sometimes Carlos types in Spanish, using his eyes, on the device keyboard. Mrs. Davidson also programmed Spanish vocabulary onto the device so he can communicate with his parents in their native language. Yesica Ruiz recalled her son’s first words using it, uttered at home near the end of a busy school day. “I’m tired,” he said. “I want to go out.” Carlos takes candid photos using the I-12’s built-in camera with a mischievous “Say ‘cheese’” for his subjects. Other favorite expressions are “Hi! My name is Messi,” a reference to Barcelona soccer* superstar Lionel Messi. Carlos can use the device to play recorded music. For the holiday show, he used it to sing and play trumpet sounds throughout the performance.
Yesica Ruiz said the technology is like the answer to a faraway dream. Her son can say what he wants, do what he loves and feel like he belongs. Every student wants that, Mrs. Davidson said.
“When you can figure out what they want to say and what they’re passionate about, you see this light bulb go off and it’s thrilling. You know that you’ve reached them.”
*Soccer, as mentioned in this story, is the equivalent of football in the United States.