Magazine Feature

The Great Equalizer

Assistive technology launches a new era in inclusion.

Eva Sweeney, a fun-loving, red-haired 17-year-old in Santa Monica, Calif., talks to her girlfriends for hours at a stretch and never tires of things to say. Every afternoon, she goes on-line to E-mail her friends, just to catch up. She likes going to school but looks forward to summer vacation. Her face brightens when anyone mentions her two dogs -- Annie, the chocolate lab, and Buster, a lively mixed-breed. Eva loves dogs so much she's turned it into a business, earning money during the summer with her own dog-walking service.

To meet Eva is to understand how the word "disabled" is often a misnomer for those with special needs. Eva has cerebral palsy, a group of conditions caused by damage to the part of the brain that controls and coordinates muscular action. She has learned to accommodate her condition with assistive technology, her own drive and the friendly cooperation of those around her. She is a fully included student at The Crossroads School.

Eva's challenges are physical: She is nonverbal and has no fine motor control. She gets around in a lightweight wheelchair and needs assistance from a full-time aide. To communicate, she uses a simple laminated alphabet board. A battery-powered red penlight clipped to the rim of a baseball cap allows her to spell out her thoughts by nodding her head. In class, her aide, Laurel Isbister, reads her words aloud and records her test answers in longhand.

Eva has mastered an array of devices that give her even more communication independence at home. One of these is called a HeadMouse. It consists of a small box, mounted on top of the computer, that emits an infrared light and tracks the movement of a small reflective dot that Eva wears in the middle of her forehead. As she moves her head, the computer's cursor activates an onscreen keyboard so Eva can type reports, write letters and send E-mails.

Adept as she is at using the more complex technology, Eva prefers the low-tech penlight and spelling board for interacting in person with her friends and classmates.

"More elaborate technology," she says, "distracts them from who I am." For Nika Hoffman, Eva's 11th grade English teacher, assistive technology was crucial in helping initiate and sustain direct contact for everyone involved. "We have a very egalitarian set-up in class," Hoffman explains. "Everyone sits in a wide circle so they can all see each other. Eva works alongside everyone else. She's part of that circle and participates in every respect."

Technology, both high and low, has become a great equalizer, enabling students with special needs to learn in the general classroom and helping teachers -- who may be new to mainstreaming -- make the transition smooth for everyone.


The Need for Mainstreaming

In its 21st annual report to Congress, the Department of Education Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services indicates that 11 percent of the national student population from ages 6 to17 are served by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (idea). Of those children, 96 percent are in regular public and private schools. Inclusion programs aim to mainstream these students from special education programs into the regular classroom. Success depends not only on student access to assistive technology but also a commitment on the part of teachers to embrace new classroom strategies.

In 1990, Linda Schilling, a 5th grade teacher in Cornelius, N.C., was preparing to welcome five new students -- two with muscular dystrophy, confined to wheelchairs, and three with learning disabilities. She had no prior experience mainstreaming special ed students, nor was she particularly well-versed on the latest assistive technologies. Faced with this new challenge, Ms. Schilling received a grant from the Carolina Computer Access Center to utilize technology to assist her new students. She drew support and inspiration from the cooperative learning environment of her classroom.

"Teachers new to this situation," says Schilling, "first need to admit what they don't know, accept it and then begin the learning process. Most importantly, get everyone involved." Schilling enlisted her entire class in the effort. Classmates proved as crucial to the process as the computer.

Since Linda Schilling's experience, assistive technologies have become more sophisticated with each passing year. Dr. Denise Lance teaches "Mainstreaming: Teaching Individuals with Special Needs in the Regular Classroom" for the University of San Diego through, a leading online continuing adult education provider. Lance, who also instructs students nationwide from her computer in Missouri, became an expert in the use of assistive devices as a result of her own cerebral palsy. In her work, she emphasizes the breadth of equipment options available for students and others with special needs.

"There are more than 20,000 assistive technology devices and software programs on the market," Dr. Lance points out, "and every individual with disabilities has different strengths and needs. The technology used will vary depending on the disability, the degree of severity and the individual's own personal choice."

Eva Sweeney may favor her low-tech spelling board for conversations, but she enjoys using a computer and asked her parents for one when she was only 3. She became familiar with computers and their capabilities while attending a special preschool program at the University of California, Los Angeles. The UCLA Intervention Program for Children with Disabilities is an effective model for introducing the special needs child to assistive technology and the inclusion process.

Overseen by executive director Kit Kehr, the program includes 14 toddlers, two of whom are nondisabled. For Kehr, the presence of nondisabled peers in the toddler group is important because "it's a catalyst for social interaction, communication and play among the youngsters. It also helps parents recognize aspects of their child's development that are part of normal development."

The program is staffed by two early childhood educators and two assistant teachers, as well as occupational, physical and speech therapists. Started in 1982, the initiative has advanced the use of computers and assistive technology and pioneered the development of more than 80 educational software programs for special needs students.

In the middle of an otherwise typical nursery classroom, three children gather around a computer console playing "Paper Dolls," an activity that teaches youngsters to identify seasonal clothing and dress the characters on the screen. Players can make changes on the screen with a single, simple switch.

By the time they enter a regular preschool at the age of 3, children will have been exposed to a range of computer learning experiences here at the UCLA facility. According to Kehr, "Computers help stimulate children to do more, and they generally also hang in with the computer for longer. They interact in small groups, which contributes to social development, and it helps promote motor, cognitive, language and personal development, as well."


Filling the Gaps

Not every special needs child has the advantage of learning to use technology at such an early age, and some children -- disabled by strokes or car accidents or gunshot wounds -- find themselves in sudden need. To learn what assistive choices are available and how to best use them, schools, teachers, parents and students with disabilities can turn to the nonprofit Alliance for Technology Access (ATA) and its 42 nationwide resource centers.

One ATA site, the Computer Access Center (CAC) in Los Angeles, is overseen by executive director Mary Ann Glicksman and is under contract with school districts in Southern California to assist students with special needs and their teachers in the mainstreaming process. Their goal is full inclusion. Providing hundreds of software and peripheral computer solutions, the Computer Access Center helps each user tailor an individualized technology solution.

More than enabling the special needs student to learn, communicate and get around, technology's greatest benefit may lie in its ability to integrate them with their peers. Interaction is key to helping children see what they have in common.

Voice-activated software, such as ViaVoice, enables quadriplegics to speak and watch as the computer types for them. There are switches that substitute for the clicking of a mouse, allowing the person to use a hand, foot or leg to apply pressure to a touch-sensitive device. Software and peripherals exist that can be controlled by the movement of any part of the body, including the subtle motion of twitching the nose or sucking through a straw.

"In the past, people did not have any academic expectations for those with disabilities," says Glicksman, "but now, technology enables the special needs child to achieve. Once you give someone the tools to bypass barriers, they can access the general curriculum and adapt it to their needs."

Like Linda Schilling in North Carolina, teachers who have worked with CAC strive to create a collaborative learning experience that draws the regular ed students into the process of making special students feel welcome.

"Students are very interested in high-tech anything and are curious about how it works and what it does, especially when it is being used by a student with special needs. A student who uses assistive technology sometimes becomes a point person of sorts on those issues and finds him- or herself an important person in the classroom," explains Melody Ram, computer access specialist at CAC.


Real Connections

The inclusion effort in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is comprehensive and multi-tiered. The district supports each special needs student with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The IEP assesses a student's needs and identifies the goals and objectives to be met in the coming year. The iep also evaluates what assistive supports the student may require in the classroom, such as a laptop computer, specific software programs or mobility solutions.

Nancy Franklin manages LAUSD's inclusion program. A general education teacher for more than 10 of her 30 years' experience as an educator, Nancy supervises Itinerant Facilitators -- educators responsible for coordinating the mainstreaming of special needs students at various schools.

"Facilitators are special education teachers who connect with the families, students and general education teachers. They are responsible for supporting the student and developing collaborative teams and do anything and everything to support the student's inclusion," she explains.

Sally Sewell is a special needs student supported by the LAUSD Least Restrictive Environment program. She is an ebullient, good-humored 13-year-old who attends the Orville Wright Magnet School in Westchester, Calif. Despite her learning disabilities and physical impairments, Sally can speak, but her diction isn't clear. She is also challenged by re-fixation of the eye, which means that the muscles that control her eyes do not always focus with her gaze, making reading difficult for her.

Sally uses a regular computer mouse and keyboard but needs special reading software such as Write: Out Loud, a program that speaks as it highlights each word. She has an aide who writes for her. Although Sally participates in advanced math classes, she needs a calculator to maneuver around a learning disability that slows her down in mastering basics such as adding and subtracting. The programs MathPad and Access to Math record computational steps for students like Sally who can't write out their math problems with pencil and paper.

Sally's mother, Bekah Dannelley Sewell, is an itinerant facilitator for the LAUSD and oversees the inclusion of several students, including Sally. Bekah feels that technology answers only part of the problem.

"Socialization is a very big thing," she explains. "We like to bring the special needs child into a small group, so they can interact and mingle with their peers. They need socialization to learn and to make friends, too. That's very important."

For Sally, technology is a friendly help. "I love it! I learn a lot with it," she says.

More than enabling the special needs student to learn, communicate and get around, technology's greatest benefit may lie in its ability to integrate them with their peers. Interaction is key to helping children see what they have in common, rather than what sets them apart.

"Many assistive technologies allow for the regular keyboard and mouse to be used at the same time adaptive devices are hooked to the computer. So a student with a disability and his or her peer could work on a computer project, explore an interactive Web page, or play an educational game together on the same computer," Bekah explains.

Ultimately, technology's effectiveness in the classroom may be a matter of attitude on the part of its user. "For me, technology makes life so much easier that I don't care if it makes me stick out like a red rose in a field of daisies," says Dr. Denise Lance, remembering when she was a fully included student in college. "I took my laptop to class, kicked off my shoes and typed notes with my toes! I got a few strange looks the first couple of days, but people eventually got used to it."

Augmentive and Alternative Communication

Most adolescents face similar challenges as they deal with transitions at school, at home and in their personal lives. But for young people with disabilities, the problems can be considerably more acute, making the need for role models and mentors in their lives all the more urgent.


Looking to close this void, Janice Light, professor of communication disorders, and David McNaughton, assistant professor of special education, at Pennsylvania State University, became increasingly aware of the strong leadership that was developing among adults with similar disabilities. Like their younger counterparts, they rely on augmentive and alternative communication (AAC).


"These adults had managed to achieve certain educational and vocational goals and could really offer strong support, advice and encouragement," Light explained. "The problem was that they were at a great distance geographically from these young people."


She and her colleagues developed the AAC Mentor Project to promote and foster online relationships between adolescents with communication disabilities and adult mentors. Because AAC users already depend on computers and E-mail to communicate, linking thee two groups in cyberspace seemed a natural and valuable extension.


The project staff began recruiting and training 30 adult mentors who then underwent a 12- to 18-hour training period before they were paired with a young person. During this training, which occurs online, the mentors developed or sharpened communication, problem-solving and general guidance skills. Thirty adolescents who expressed an interest in the program were nominated by parents, teachers or therapists to become "proteges."


"The Mentor Project gives me someone to talk with about the workplace, college, home and the latest AAC assistive devices," says one participant.


Mentor Micahael Williams says, "There is no limit to the kinds of things a person who relies on augmentative and alternative communication might want a mentor for -- strategies for independent living, relationship development, employment issues, education issues. Each transition can be smoother with our help."

For more information, visit AAC Mentor Project or write to:

c/o Janice Light
Penn State University
110 Moore Building
University Park, PA 16802-3100
(814) 863-2010

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