Disabled kids find a voice through technology

Cooperative offers schools affordable assistive devices

September 17, 2004|By Lisa Kawata | Lisa Kawata,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Susan Garber believes that every child should have a voice.

After 30 years of helping children with disabilities and their parents and teachers, Garber discovered one obstacle: money.

That's why the former special education teacher founded AT: LAST Inc., the nonprofit Maryland Assistive Technology Cooperative, in 1998.

"If you don't get a child on technology early, so that they can influence their environment, they will become quite content to do absolutely nothing and have people do for them," Garber said. "But that so limits every aspect of their life."

Through her cooperative, the Savage resident offers discounts on various assistive technologies to school systems in Howard County and elsewhere in Maryland. By saving schools money, the co-op enables them to purchase more products and help more children.

Garber has been instrumental in getting equipment and software into almost every public school in the state.

Assistive technology includes such devices as voice-activated computers, modified vans and other equipment that costs thousands of dollars. But it can also be low-tech and inexpensive, Garber said.

Velcro straps on shoes, picture cards for those who can't speak, Braille board games and switch-activated toys are examples.

In schools, word-prediction software such as CoWriter can help children whose reading and writing skills are temporarily delayed. Tech/Speak and Step-by-Step are devices that help children who have little or no spoken language.

Such products, called "augmentative communication devices," can help prevent a child from becoming "a shell," said Amanda Cheong, AT: LAST's purchasing director, whose daughter, Kristin, has never been able to speak.

Kristin, 15, was born without sufficient sheath around her brain to protect neurons and keep impulses on track, Cheong said. Kristin's impulses are slowed, and other medical complications have appeared as she has grown older. The disability is so rare that doctors have not been able to classify it.

That makes Kristin's future unpredictable. "She makes it up as she goes along," Cheong said.

She functions at a low level physically but a very high level socially, her mother said. Until March, Kristin was able to attend Cedar Lane School and had an active social life. She traveled to England and China with her parents.

But multiple episodes of arrested breathing resulted in a tracheotomy and a ventilator to regulate her breathing. Now, Kristin rarely leaves her home. Her parents take care of her with part-time nursing help, and her mother works from home. The Howard County school system sends a teacher to the Cheongs' east Columbia home two hours a day, three days a week.

Assistive technology keeps Kristin stimulated and gives her some control. By sliding her fingers over the battery-operated Step-by-Step, she can initiate a conversation that has been pre-scripted and recorded into the device by her mother. She plays learning games on a laptop computer with the help of switches and specially adapted software.

Garber and Cheong got to know one another in parent training workshops at the Johns Hopkins University, where for 10 years Garber directed a graduate program in assistive technology. When Garber started the cooperative, she hired Cheong.

"She handles every order as if her own daughter were waiting for it," Garber said of her friend and employee.

The service "has made an incredible difference," said Nancy Farley, an occupational therapist and member of the Assistive Technology Resource Team for Howard County's public schools. "We've saved a tremendous amount of money," especially on software, where manufacturers have the most flexibility in offering discounts.

Howard schools purchased $128,399 worth of assistive technology in 2003-2004. Using the cooperative saved them more than $15,000.

Howard invests mostly in the software package Boardmaker, a large picture-library program that is easy to use, Farley said.

Garber said the software originally listed for $399. By using the bulk-buying power of the co-op, she persuaded the manufacturer to give her the dealer rate of $249.

The co-op sold so many Boardmakers that the manufacturer lowered the list price for everyone and Garber negotiated another discount. It is one of her most popular items.

AT: LAST also offers training to teachers and parents in the use of technologies. The cooperative has become a resource for education and support for people with disabilities and their families.

In November, the co-op will hold its second annual Parents' Holiday Special Needs Gift Shop, offering adapted toys and learning materials.

Last year's gift shop attracted parents from as far away as Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore. The event's success prompted Garber to plan two gift shops this year, one in Columbia and one in Gaithersburg.

Garber publishes a newsletter for customers, AT News You Can Use. The co-op also lends selected technology to families on a trial basis.

AT: LAST is funded by a grant from the Maryland Technology Assistance Program and by the small fee it charges in addition to its discounted prices. The co-op offers discounts on smaller quantities of some products, for families or groups that need to purchase one or two items.

AT: LAST recently expanded its catalog to include discounts on some medical equipment.

Information: 301-725-6148 or e-mail: info@matcoop.org.

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