The name and phrase somehow seem inseparable when you get to know this multi-talented Southern California teen.
Casey, 14, is a natural for the roles he has landed in life. Among them: awesome big brother to his siblings Anna and Luke, fine student, generous community advocate, accomplished storyteller and budding playwright.
Not everything comes easily. Movement is difficult for Casey and so are other ordinary things, like enjoying a meal or joining a conversation. Sometimes his life must be rearranged around health issues related to his profound cerebral palsy disabilities. Casey enters high school this fall with an especially rough period behind him. He spent much of the past year in and out of the hospital undergoing several procedures including surgery for partial removal of his stomach, the repair of a hernia and his esophagus, which had been damaged from severe reflux.
Ever the trooper, Casey motivates others by how beautifully he handles things.
“He has the most positive outlook on life and keeps everyone else going, too,” said his mom, Beth. “He embraces life and really wants to live it as fully and happily as possible.”
Casey keeps everyone in the loop on his activities, ideas and feelings through the eye-controlled Tobii Dynavox I-12 that serves as his voice. His delivery of speeches at his eighth grade graduation ceremony, the dedication of a universally accessible playground in his neighborhood, and as a guest panelist at the 2014 FRED (Farms and Ranches Enabling people with Disabilities) conference are a few prominent examples of how he uses the device. There are scores more. Casey has used the eye-controlled technology since second grade. His unique communication journey inspired him to write a play about a whimsical family vacation entitled “Once Upon a Road Trip” using the device. The story tells why he would be lost without it.
In reality, family and friends feel at home with the technology, just as Casey does. Anna and Luke are “super protective” of their brother and want to hear him out, Beth Rohrer said. Anna, 4, is learning to talk with Casey by following Luke’s example. Luke, 10, simply waits for Casey to compose what he has to say on the I-12’s screen by moving his eyes.
“To them, it’s all very normal,” their mother said. “It’s just a part of everyday life.”
Casey considers the time he surprised his doctor by telling how he really felt one of his biggest communication successes. “He was explaining something scary to my mom,” Casey said, “So I told him, ‘I can understand everything you say.’”
Without a way to communicate, Casey says life is like constantly being thirsty and all you can do is stare at a glass of water. To further the analogy, technology lets Casey drink all that life offers because he has a voice to share his experiences with others.
“His easy manner and ability to convey what’s in his heart is what sets Casey apart,” said Jeannine Madden, Casey’s longtime instructional assistant and tutor. “People respond to him on a very genuine level and they consider what he has to say with a heightened sense of awareness.”
Back in his Cub Scout days, Casey eloquently spoke to the boys in his troop through an older Tobii device, assuring them he got along fine despite the CP that developed from an injury at his birth.
“But it didn’t hurt my thinking,” he said. “I think just as well as anybody.” Casey went on to share something equally important for others to know:
“I love to have fun and that’s not a challenge at all.”
Many people know Casey from his involvement with Family Theatre Inc. near his family’s Hermosa Beach home in the Los Angeles area. The marquee first caught Casey’s eye on the ride home from school. After attending a show or two with Mrs. Madden and his mom, Casey wanted to do more than just watch. Family Theatre owner Craig Greely recalled that Casey went to the same school as his own children.
“I knew who Casey was for years, but he was just that kid in a wheelchair at school,” Mr. Greely said. “I had no idea what I would do with him as an actor.” He reached out to Beth Rohrer to help identify possibilities for her son. “I wanted to learn as much as I could.” Casey proved a great teacher, too, sharing his likes and dislikes, and revealing his sense of humor and his curiosity about life as well as the theater through technology. His inner star shined when Family Theatre presented “Once Upon A Mattress” in 2013. The musical adaptation of the fairy tale “Princess and the Pea” features the role of a silent king who likes to tease the ladies. Handsome and animated, Casey thrived in the role, right up until the end of the play when the spell of silence plaguing the king is broken and he exclaims, “I can speak! I can speak! And I have a lot to say!” Casey delivered the lines through his Tobii Dynavox device. Casey had his share of stage fright, Mr. Greely said, “But he went ahead and did it, which is really what courage is all about.”
Mr. Greely likes that the I-12 puts real-time interaction virtually within reach for Casey and his communication partners. “So much of our personality is wrapped up in our ability to communicate instantly,” Mr. Greely said. “I would never know Casey if it weren’t for that device.” Check out Casey’s impeccable timing in this comedy routine the two perform together.
While audiences are smitten with his stage presence, Casey prefers to leave his mark behind the scenes. He’s off to an excellent start. Family Theatre Inc. established the Casey Rohrer Special Needs Theater Scholarship in 2015 to open opportunities for more young people with disabilities to participate in its programs. Plans to produce “Once Upon a Road Trip” are in the works.
Casey’s writing talent took root in his elementary school language arts classes. Mrs. Madden enjoyed helping it bloom. She made sure Casey’s peers saw all he had to offer even before he used an AAC device. Though it’s hard to understand Casey when he vocalizes, he helped her give spelling tests to his first grade class by saying each word aloud with her.
That set the stage for Casey’s class participation to thrive as he integrated the technology into his school day. Mrs. Madden created a button for one of his devices to say, “Please call on me. My hand is raised. I’d like a chance to answer,” when he felt the urge. They eventually had a system. As Casey acquired new writing skills, he typed out more detailed messages, moving his eyes. She programmed the messages on his device, each on its own button. When a language arts anthology had accompanying MP3 files, Mrs. Madden uploaded them to the devices, allowing Casey to read whole stories aloud. Casey participated in class skits and even had an “applause” button for when he wanted to praise others.
Mrs. Madden and Casey miss each other. She moved out of state this summer. This fall, he will be a freshman at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, drawn in part by its strong drama program. His love of language, whether expressed in a play, poetry, prose or casual conversation, is a gift that’s bound to nurture his future success. “Casey’s strengths lie in his immense imagination,” Mrs. Madden said.
You can hear it when Casey recites his original poem, saying, “If I could write everything I am thinking, my words would reach the sky.”