Disabled children are connecting through LINC

June 18, 1998|By Jay Friess | Jay Friess,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

At six stories high, the Exeter Building has always been easily distinguishable from smaller surrounding structures on Eastern Avenue near Fells Point.

But these days, something big is going on inside its red brick walls, too.

This past winter, LINC (Learning Independence Through Computers Inc.) Resource Center relocated its offices from Ostend Street to the building's third floor. For eight years, the nonprofit organization has been employing the power of computing to help its mentally and physically disabled clients achieve "productivity, independence and success" in their schools, communities and workplaces.

While its clients range in age from 18 months to 86, this week the organization's focus is on children. As it has every summer for the past six years, LINC is holding a computer day-camp for its young clients (ages 6 to 11) and their non-disabled siblings and friends.

The aim of the weeklong camp, says Mary Salkever, the organization's executive director, is twofold: to enhance kids' computer skills and to build understanding between the young LINC clients and nondisabled children.

On a typical day, the dozen campers are huddled in groups of two and three around several workstations that line the well-lit main room of LINC's new offices. On this particular day, the computer work is focused on activities dealing with aquatic life and undersea exploration.

Salkever explains that the campers use the computers to learn about a specific subject in the morning, then take a field trip to have a hands-on experience with that subject in the afternoon. On this day, the trip will be to Baltimore's National Aquarium.

Such trips, Salkever says, to places including the Maryland Science Center and the Public Works Museum, help reinforce computer learning -- and let the young campers get away from the tubes for a while.

But the children don't seem in a big hurry to end their time at the computers, where they experiment with software such as paint programs and storybook creators.

At one workstation, a pair of nondisabled girls is having an intellectual argument over whether all or just one of the Spice Girls should be included on Page 4 of their story: "Girl Power: The Spice Girls Go Diving." Eventually, they arrive at a compromise: The two "ugly ones" will be left out.

Brandon Der, 11, and his cohort, Alex Fonte, 8, who suffers from attention deficit disorder, are glad to show anyone the inner workings of the Kid Pix paint program, or even the finer points of the Macintosh Operating System.

Salkever says that pairing nondisabled children such as Brandon with disabled campers helps teach them to help and respect their less capable group members.

Among LINC's disabled campers is 11-year-old Sarah Brintnall, who, with an advanced case of cerebral palsy, has limited control of her motor functions, including her speech. She cannot speak articulately on her own, but can through her computer.

Sara uses her head to bump a switch, mounted on the headrest of her wheelchair, to send commands to a laptop computer running a program called DynaVox. She types what she wants to say, using the head switch to select letters and words, and the computer's electronic voice pronounces what she has written.

Asked to describe what she was doing with her group, Sara takes a minute or two to assemble her answer. "I am doing picture of a crab," the computer voice replies.

Sara's mother, Ruth Brintnall, raves about LINC's summer program.

"The camp has been so great. It's so close to all the museums," she says. "[Sara] just types 'L I N C' all the time -- she loves it."

LINC has been at the forefront of a nationwide network of similar resource centers that collectively work with tens of thousands of children and adults. Salkever and her husband, David, founded Baltimore's LINC in 1991, when they saw how computers were helping their own disabled daughter.

Ruth Brintnall says she thinks LINC occupies a "vital niche" in the area's disabled community, since its computer services, which include everything from hardware lending to software training, are so unique.

As the morning computer session draws to a close around noon, campers save their morning's work and gather together in a large group to head off to the aquarium. Disabled and nondisabled kids alike chatter excitedly about seeing the aquarium's current exhibit featuring "cool poisonous snakes."

And though the kids are armed with their new computer knowledge, camp counselors know there is still one detail to attend to make sure the field trip goes smoothly.

"Anyone need to go to the bathroom?" a volunteer counselor yells.

There are still some things a computer can't do.

Pub Date: 6/18/98

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