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Inventor Helps Children With Special Needs

April 30, 1991|TERRY SPENCER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Soon, he started his own company to market his programs. In 1986 he moved to Dana Point and, learning that he lived near the R.H. Dana facility, went there to volunteer his services.

"He walked in the door and said, 'Hi, I'm R.J. Cooper,' and I looked at him and said, 'Don't we buy our computer programs from you?' " recounted Linda Puckett, a speech pathologist at the school.

Over the years at the school, Cooper has found it hardest to find programs and devices to help children such as Brent, who have both limited movement and communication skills.

To help Brent communicate, Cooper recently adapted a small cassette tape player using its stereo capabilities. A tape loop is inserted in the player. Recorded on one channel of the tape are "yes" answers; on the other channel are "no" answers.

Two wires run from the player and are connected to buttons. One button is attached to the left side of the brace supporting Brent's head, the other to the right side. When Brent is asked a question--for example "Are you in pain?"--he answers by pressing his head on the left button to activate the speaker that is playing "yes," and on the right button to activate the speaker playing "no."

"Before, the only way to know what was going on with Brent was to guess, because there was no definite way to get a yes or no answer," said Terri Weir, his mother. "Say if you thought he wanted to get out of his wheelchair, you could start to pick him up and if he started fussing that meant he wanted to stay or if he smiled that meant he wanted to get out, but that was only a guess."

One of Cooper's latest inventions is the CooperCar, an adaptation of a child's electronic dune buggy that he has begun to market nationally. About 3 feet long and 3 feet high, the six-wheeled buggy costs about $300. The kit to modify the car is another $495.

Buttons are attached to the car's headrest in a manner similar to the yes/no device. A child pushes a button behind his head to accelerate and turn left and right. Wires run from the car to a joy stick that is carried by a parent or other monitor walking alongside, allowing them to override the child's directions.

Cooper and Mullen see the device as a step in getting a child ready for an electric wheelchair.

"An electronic wheelchair can cost upward of $10,000, so it's important that a child be ready to use one before one is purchased," Cooper said.

Leaning his chin forward and then throwing his head backward into the headrest, Brent had the CooperCar speeding across the playground one recent morning. Two able-bodied fourth-graders from neighboring R.H. Dana Elementary School, taking turns as Brent's monitor, were forced to trot alongside to keep up.

"On the first day R.J. finished the CooperCar, he brought it to our house and put Brent in it," said Terri Weir. "Brent drove it all the way around the cul de sac again and again. He really likes it and he can't wait to get in it."

"A lot of the (able-bodied) children have started coming up to him and talking to him because they think the car is cool," his mother said, adding that before this, Brent had little interaction with children other than family and classmates.

"Somebody was watching Brent on the playground with the other children last week and she told me something kinda neat," Cooper said. "She said this is probably the first time Brent has been asked about an ability he has rather than his disability."

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