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Theatre student with spastic paraplegia uses tablet for his lines and plays tennis

By Andrew Christiansen

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    TUCSON, Arizona (KGUN) — Sitting in his wheelchair, junior at Catalina Foothills High School Ethan Bennett was pushed onstage by his partner Lily Rhodes.

While he can move around, he can’t walk or talk.

Connected to his wheelchair is his augmented communication device, a tablet that uses his eye movement to pick words on a screen that are spoken out loud by a speaker. The tablet that sits in front of him doesn’t even require him to use his fingers to choose the words.

While she doesn’t pick his lines on the tablet for him, Rhodes does guide him with her finger.

“My relationship with Ethan during the show is really more of as a friend,” Rhodes said.

He’s a friend that she said isn’t just making people in the theatre laugh, but he’s also a friend that she said is rolling his way into people’s hearts at the high school.

“I’ve even had kids at school say like it’s so important to them, whether because they have a sibling that has a disability or just they understand the importance of it,” she said.

His mom Rose Bennett stood happily by his side before a dress rehearsal, encouraging him to use his words to bring out his funny personality.

Their relationship is evident: they are close and joke with each other. Occasionally Rose will drop a Mean Girls reference to which Ethan will laugh.

Words don’t have to be spoken when Ethan expresses how much he loves his mom. He rests his head close to hers and Rose knows what he means. I love you.

He does use his augmented communication device to speak with her, Rose helping him choose the words and pictures on the tablet.

“If you meet a stranger like what do you do? You make eye contact, you smile, you start a conversation. He’s now because of his tablet has the ability to do those things and be seen as an equal,” Rose Bennett said.

It’s a device Rose said has been his voice since he was ten after almost drowning during a summer camp. She said being underwater for up to 15 minutes left him with spastic paraplegia.

“Everything is the same. Like he still can do everything everyone else does, just different,” she said.

However, theatre isn’t the only way he stays active. He also plays tennis at the Tucson Racquet and Fitness Club.

Swinging at a tennis ball that is on a string, he smiles as he plays around other people who also have disabilities.

“It helps his muscles develop and still stay fit,” Rose said. “Just every little aspect of his life has just improved in doing these sorts of things.”

However, Rose said it’s not just about improving his life. She’s also hoping to get his story out there so she can connect him with disabled people like him and connect with parents like her.

She’s involved with a few organizations in Tucson that promote kids safety especially when it comes to drowning.

“There’s really nothing holding them back. Anything in this world is a possibility and you can do anything. You just may do it a little different,” she said.

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