Innovations help disabled children


Computers: Numerous devices are enabling kids with developmental problems learn how to read and write.

July 04, 1999|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

LIKE ANY 12-YEAR-OLD, Sarah Brintnall doesn't want her mother hanging around when she ventures to sixth grade this fall at Baltimore County's Pine Grove Middle School -- her first experience with the big kids in the scary land beyond elementary school.

Smiling, Sarah spells out the message in 2-inch letters on her computer screen: "My mom is banned the first month."

Sarah, who has cerebral palsy, cannot speak or handle a pencil or crayon. But she can read, says her mother, Ruth, and she can write by tapping her head against a red, cloth-covered switch attached to the headrest of her wheelchair that serves as a mouse.

Nearby, Raquel "Rocky" Eisenstein, a sociable 7-year-old who also has cerebral palsy, plays a game on her computer screen by tapping a "single switch" -- the size and shape of a salad plate -- attached by cord to her computer mouse.

Sarah and Raquel are reading. So, with the aid of other devices, are Miguel Ward, 8, who has lead paint poisoning, and Alexander Green, 10, who has autism. I'm watching them in the computer-lined office of Learning Independence Through Computers (LINC), a nonprofit group that puts technology to work for people with disabilities.

Until now in The Sun's Reading by 9 reports and commentary, we've concentrated on the way 91 percent of kids become literate. Typically, they learn to read in school after learning to speak and listen in preschool years. Usually they learn to write after learning to read.

Here at LINC, near Baltimore's Little Italy, we see examples of the other 9 percent -- the children with "developmental" disabilities including retardation, autism and cerebral palsy. These kids' language carts are sometimes in front of their horses. Many will never learn to speak, for example, but can learn to read and write with a great deal of help.

Five million to 8 million people have developmental disabilities in the United States, according to the Center for Literacy and Disabilities Studies at Duke University. Because many children in the category don't get early help, 70 percent to 90 percent of them can't read or write on par with "normal" kids their age.

Computer to the rescue, says Mary Salkever, LINC co-founder and executive director. She's speaking not only of the standard things we know computers can do, but also about numerous -- and often dazzling -- adaptations.

Innovations include switches like those used by Sarah and Rocky; "touchscreens" that allow people with poor motor skills to bypass mouse controls; software that translates type into speech and speech into type; "head pointers" for control above the neck; and devices that allow computer operation by eye movement alone.

Education of children with disabilities has improved, says Gloria Lane, a Johns Hopkins University professor and authority on special education, "but still too many are regarded as mentally retarded and never given the chance to develop literacy skills."

One of the reasons, according to experts at the Duke center, is that children with disabilities have a host of other problems just getting through life. Parents and teachers who want the children to learn to read and write often lack guidance, and literacy can be the least of preoccupations.

The irony is that computers might be more useful in special education than in general education. A few weeks ago, I poked gentle fun at the "computer revolution" in education. In many classrooms, computers are a redundancy, a poor substitute for good teaching and good books.

It's a different story when applied to children with disabilities.

Carol Stanger, a computer expert in California who recently completed a federally sponsored study whose results will be published this fall, points to a couple of advantages. "One is that computers bring into play several of a child's senses with all of the things they do -- the songs and the visual stimuli and so on. Computers also remove physical barriers, which is so important for these children."

"The computer," says Stanger, "has infinite patience. It can ask the same question a dozen times."

Pub Date: 7/04/99

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.