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Miracle of Technology : Schools Use Modified Microcomputers to Help Severely Handicapped Children

December 27, 1985|DINA L. HEREDIA | Times Staff Writer

Ten-year-old Ben, sitting in his wheelchair, watched as his teacher, Catherine Titus, set up an Apple IIc computer and its television monitor. She placed a switch in front of Ben, who pushed it.

"All My Children" appeared on the television set, and Ben laughed with delight.

Turning on a television set or a radio with the help of a switch may not seem like a great accomplishment, but for children such as Ben it is almost a miracle. Ben has cerebral palsy and, like many of his classmates at Wallace Special Center in Santa Ana, cannot lead the normal life of a 10-year-old.

But with the help of a microcomputer and a few pieces of modified equipment, he and his classmates have an increased chance of overcoming their handicaps--whether by pushing a switch to turn on a television set or learning how to speak normally by using computers that drill them on proper pronunciation.

Students going to special schools such as Wallace Special Center and the Saddleback Hearing Impaired programs in Santa Ana and Moiola Special Classes in Fountain Valley are using personal computers to improve their speaking abilities and to overcome their learning and physical disabilities.

Titus said the computer has made a difference for some of her students, including Ben.

"It gives him some purposeful movement. He has to do a lot of stretching and . . . is controlling his body," she said. "You can just see the joy on his face that he did something . . . and can get positive reinforcement."

Most people think computers in the classroom are reserved for teaching students word-processing or how to add and subtract. But the Orange County Department of Education's special programs section has adapted personal computers to teach handicapped children a variety of motor and communications skills.

"Students use technology to adapt to the environment, and a computer is one way of doing it," said Paul Richard, a technology specialist with the special programs section.

Each of the special schools was given a computer in 1982 in the Apple Computer giveaway program for public schools. The special programs department then began to seek ways to use the computers in the classroom.

The next year, the Legislature appropriated $9 million a year for five years to increase instruction in technology--primarily computers--in public schools. So far, 249 schools in Orange County have received more than $1 million in the first two years of the bill. Thirteen of the special schools were among them, and they received a total of $148,000.

Richard said he expected that the two remaining schools will receive funds in 1986.

For the most part, the computer hardware at the special schools is similar to the equipment found in regular schools--Apple IIc computers, color monitors and software for preschool and primary grades. But the equipment is adapted for the schools' programs with special switches and voice synthesizers and with software specially designed for the handicapped.

"Students can control (the computer) by using adaptive equipment," Richard said. "Most of them can't use the keyboard, so we modify the computer."

Computers are good aids, Richard said, because they can repeat a lesson and keep a student's attention. "A lot of kids need the extra patience of a computer, and they need one-to-one with it and to work 20 to 30 minutes with it."

The Wallace Special Center's system, which enables severely handicapped children to turn on a television set or a radio with a push of the switch, was specially adapted for the students by Jim Hagerman, a computer design and software engineer who volunteered his time to the county education department. He modified a similar, voice-activated system for the physically disabled so that it would work for the handicapped and nonverbal students who could not speak to a computer.

Severe Handicaps

Most of the students at Wallace have severe handicaps, including varying degrees of mental retardation, and most are unable to talk, said Karen McMillian, the principal of Wallace.

"The computer will open the doors to make their life more functional and give them more access to things that they were not able to participate in before," she said.

McMillian and Titus felt that the computer would also help them measure the true capability of their students. Conventional intelligence tests, they said, do not gauge the intelligence of their students accurately because of their handicaps.

The technology also can be used to improve communications skills. One program, called "Chatterbox," drills a deaf student on how to say words correctly. The computer becomes a surrogate therapist, monitoring the speech of the student and reproducing the sounds on the screen and from a voice synthesizer.

More Difficult Lesson

The student repeats words such as "cat," "dig" and "fox" until he says them correctly with consistency. The computer then moves to a more difficult lesson.

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