Flick of a switch opens new world for disabled students

May 27, 1991|By Robert A. Erlandson

A tiny electronic switch, sandwiched between two small squares of photo mounting board and wrapped in a few inches of silvery duct tape, has changed Erin Kelly's life.

The 12-year-old Arbutus girl is a victim of cerebral palsy. Propped in her wheelchair, Erin struggled to raise her head to lay her cheek on the switch, attached to the headrest by hook and loop tape. The strain was mirrored on her face.

But then the television on the table before her snapped to life, ironically with a film of a girl about the same age busily mixing up a batch of dough before running off to play -- something Erin will never do.

However, without that switch, adapted from wire and a telephone jack that cost about $1.50, Erin would have no access to the television at all, unless someone else turned it on.

Erin is a student at the Rolling Road School-Maiden Choice Center, a Baltimore County special education school that is a hot-bed of technological adaptation to ease the burdens of the physically and mentally handicapped.

Rolling Road-Maiden Choice has about 300 youngsters, 3 to 21 years old, with moderate to profound handicaps. It draws students from the west side of Baltimore County and is one of three such schools in the county.

The classrooms are brightly decorated with pictures of animals, birds and flowers and posters with colors just as in any regular school in an effort to provide as normal an environment as possible.

Ten-year-old Robbie Saunders of Woodlawn can read, but, because of multiple handicaps, he can barely move any part of his body.

Allen Spurr, his teacher, rigged a switch the boy can touch with his shoulder to turn on a computer with which he can match words and pictures.

"This enables him to make choices for the first time," said Mr. Spurr, 44, who has spent 18 years working with the youngsters at Rolling Road.

Mr. Spurr and Marian Mohler, a 20-year special education teacher, spend a lot of their time and money devising switches and other adaptations that permit the handicapped the most use of the physical ability they do have.

"By positioning these switches, these children have an ability to make something happen, for the first time in their lives," Ms. Mohler said. "They do not have the ability to play with others but they can entertain themselves, and it can also lead to communication, sometimes for the first time."

She pressed the switch that made a battery-operated green plush dinosaur with flashing red eyes trundle across the table.

An 8-year-old boy arrived at the school who could not speak and who "was detached from everything" until the teacher put the switch in his hand and pressed it. "He smiled," Ms. Mohler said.

"They have no way of reacting to their environment unless you give them something they can operate with minimal effort, then suddenly the world opens up for them," Ms. Mohler said.

"It's a way for them to communicate, too," she continued. "In some cases, their minds function but they are trapped in their bodies and they were not able to let anyone know before. When it happens, it's electrifying."

For autistic children like Jason Smith, 6, of Catonsville, who are very bright and not physically handicapped but who remain silent and withdrawn, the battery-operated toys "can be motivators," Mr. Spurr said.

Not so long ago, children like Erin and Robbie and most of the other 300 at the school -- some of them profoundly handicapped -- would have been "invisible," said Principal Judy Kanigel.

"They were in a room but people did not relate to them. People talked about them but not to them," Mrs. Kanigel said. "Twenty years ago these kids were in institutions staring at the ceiling. We've enabled them to improve the quality of their lives."

"Independently, that's the most important word," Mrs. Kanigel said. "If a person can't move a limb, we fix a switch they can move."

But sometimes the inventive faculty has to reach even farther.

For Erin, they have rigged a system so that a light flashes when she directs her eyes to a printed card and recognizes the word spoken by the teacher.

And for Robbie, a special tray of controls has been created so he can operate his electric wheelchair by laying his arm in one of the slots.

Mrs. Kanigel and her assistant principals, Ruth Anderson at Rolling Road and Regina Martini at Maiden Choice, praise the electronic technology that is producing a growing range of equipment to aid the disabled.

Four years ago, teachers and therapists at the school formed a committee to consider new applications of technology, Mrs. Kanigel said.

They have created switches out of common materials that operate by slight pressure -- usually all that a child can apply -- on a plastic ribbon, a loop of string or a Formica square. Whatever works.

"There is more and better commercial equipment available," said Mr. Spurr. "I try to stay current with it by attending conferences. We enhance traditional equipment by adaptation to create the right equipment for each child."

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