Computer Helps Special-needs Children

March 19, 1995|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Staff Writer

The minute Miss Olivia opens the door to the computer room at the day-care center, smiling children pour in.

A chorus of young voices chants, "Can I do the computer?"

"Everybody wants to play with the computer," said Olivia Beard-Wall, executive director of Pre-School FUNdamentals, a Westminster day-care center. "Many of these children have no other access to computers."

The center's computer and software are technological dinosaurs she purchased at a yard sale, but to the children even outdated equipment is the stuff of wonder and so much more than a plaything.

The school, one of the few centers in the area that accepts disabled and low-income children, just barely makes its expenses and has little money for extras.

Ms. Beard-Wall charges $90 a week for children who are at the center full time. The families of more than half the children at the center receive public subsidies to help pay day-care costs, she said.

"We may not be a nonprofit, but we rarely make a profit," Ms. Beard-Wall said. "For these parents to come up with $10 for a field trip to the circus is difficult."

"My children," as she refers to the 29 2- to-6-year-olds in her care, can benefit greatly from today's technology. She can point to the progress several children have made with assistance from the computer.

Philip, 4, has attention deficit disorder and difficulty staying with any task.

He loves to play dream house on the aging computer. He spends as much as 20 minutes decorating and furnishing rooms on the computer screen. He also is learning to type his name.

"Philip came into the center like a hurricane," said Ms. Beard-Wall. "By giving him continued access to computer programs that interested him, his attention span has increased."

Meaghan, 3, is developmentally disabled and has not yet learned to speak. She often sits on Ms. Beard-Wall's lap and works the computer with a joystick, which is awkward for a small child to handle.

A touch screen and a system with a microphone probably could do more for Meaghan -- and the other children at the center with speech problems.

"Meaghan can't talk, but she knows what she wants," said her mother, Karen Coale. "The computer provides her a better way to communicate. Eventually, I think she will be able to use the keyboard."

Many educators believe that computers play an important role in the classroom and have a place in preschools.

Evelyn M. Dailey, assistant professor in the College of Education at Towson State University (TSU), said computers are ideal for disabled children.

"The computer is user friendly, nonthreatening and gives the child undivided attention," Dr. Dailey said. "It allows children to learn at different rates, provides reinforcement, corrective feedback and immediate praise."

For children with multiple disabilities, the computer can open so many doors and help them to learn, she said.

Mubina Hassanali Kirmani, TSU professor of education, said children should be introduced to computers at an early age.

"Computers are so much a way of life that considering them as an instructional technique is almost inevitable," said Dr. Kirmani. "For the handicapped, they are so much easier than the difficult manipulation of a pencil."

Social interaction also happens at the computer, "especially if the child is made to share," Dr. Kirmani said. "Two or three children can see their work on the screen. It is so much easier than paper."

Ms. Beard-Wall does not have to be persuaded. She has seen the computer advantage first hand. Financing a new system is her problem. Parents are willing but unable to help.

"We have so many special-needs children whose parents are struggling to keep up with expenses, and so many single-parents," Ms. Beard-Wall said. "Most of these children don't have the same opportunities other children have."

Ms. Beard-Wall has selected a system, which she considers ideal for her children. The $2,000 cost is beyond the center's means.

She has applied without success for several grants. Along with Ms. Coale, she is mailing requests to area businesses.

"These children can learn," said Ms. Coale, who placed her daughter in the center after an exhaustive search for day care willing to accept such a child. "Many centers are too busy or too afraid to deal with special children. We were lucky. We found a special and caring woman in Olivia Beard-Wall."

Pre-School FUNdamentals now has enrolled six "especially challenged" children, Ms. Beard-Wall said.

"I believe if these children have the opportunity to interact with children their own age, it can't be anything but good for them," she said. "Their socialization skills improve so well."

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