Through Felicia’s Eyes

Every day, miracles happen at the Dresner Foundation Soul Studio inside Friendship Circle’s Farber Center as our artists with special needs discover hidden talents they never knew they had. But, Felicia’s story is one for the record books.

The 27-year-old from West Bloomfield, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at just 5 months old, is drawing incredible portraits that make people stop and stare. And she’s doing it in a way no one ever expected. Felicia draws with her eyes using an eye-tracking computer program known as Tobii that’s designed to help paralyzed patients communicate. It’s a new use for the technology that, to our knowledge, has never been tried before.

“Born with cerebral palsy and confined to a wheelchair, Felicia Bowers has limited control over her body,” Friendship Circle Director Bassie Shemtov told the crowd at our recent Patron Circle gala. “She cannot speak and rather uses a retina-controlled device called Tobii to speak. But her mind… oh, her mind, it is sharp, witty and determined.”

Following Shemtov’s introduction, Felicia’s latest portrait called ‘The Dancer’ was unveiled, eliciting gasps, tears, and standing ovation from the crowd. The drawing – depicting a dancer in a wheelchair looking back with an outstretched arm – auctioned for $14,500, part of an evening that raised $100,000 for Friendship Circle’s programs. Felicia was all smiles.

“From a young age, I have faced my life with cerebral palsy not with sadness and not with anger – but instead with a positive outlook and a grateful heart for all that I can do,” she told the crowd using the Tobii’s computerized voice to speak. “Everyone is always asking me if my life is hard with cerebral palsy and I always say, ‘No.’ My life is beautiful.

“I have family that love and support me, a boyfriend who thinks the world of me, dreams to become independent – and now a new talent that has been discovered with the help of Soul Studio. I have learned to draw with my eyes and my drawings reflect the beauty I see in myself and my world.”

A Learning Process

Unleashing Felicia’s amazing talent was a learning process, one that took time, patience and creativity. At first, Soul Studio staff members and volunteers devised a special foot brace, enabling Felicia to paint using her right foot with the help of volunteers. She created many colorful paintings using that method – but, they knew she could do more.

Shemtov challenged art instructor Adam LaVoy to dig deeper and find another solution. He borrowed the Tobii and put himself in Felicia’s shoes, experimenting with different ways to use the eye gaze technology to draw. He came up with a system that involves zooming in very close and working on one small detail of a drawing at a time. Felicia tried it, and the end result was jaw dropping. Now, she plans to use her newfound talent to pursue her dreams.

“For many years, I have dreamt of being independent. Being able to live with my boyfriend and do what I want, when I want,” Felicia told the crowd. “Creating these drawings not only helps me express my hopes and dreams for independence, they also give me an opportunity to sell and make a living as an artist… Love and freedom are my dream. And Soul Studio has given me a chance at both.”

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