Wired for the World


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Imagine a world in which a slim, one-and-a-half pound piece of wired metal has the potential to transform a child's life: to take him from silence to speech, from frustration to satisfaction, from isolation to interaction.

That's the world many families of children with limited communication capabilities now enjoy, thanks to technological innovations that bridge the gap between disabilities and potential. Whether it's giving a child the ability to communicate her most basic needs, share a joke, converse by phone, or perform to her potential in school, electronic devices and other adaptive technology are allowing people with disabilities greater freedom of expression, interpersonal connection and independence.

Providing a voice

Leslie Welch of Cary is one parent singing the praises of new communication technologies. Her 9-year-old son Josh, who has autism, has found greater independence and made what she calls "phenomenal gains" thanks to his iPad touch-screen computer tablet.

Welch became interested in assistive technology when she first noticed another student with a communication device at Josh's intensive preschool. Intrigued, she asked the special education teacher about the device and was told about the 7-Level Communicator, a device that has pictures and corresponding phrases programmed in. When Josh wanted something, he pressed the picture and it spoke for him.

Now, thanks to the iPad, he has access to thousands of words; more importantly, he is able to choose them, rather than relying on prearranged picture cues that his parents and teachers think he might use. With his ability to express himself beyond the most basic needs, he is now able to communicate more fully and even showcase his sense of humor. Parents and son are able to share inside jokes with each other, and Josh is noticeably less frustrated.

"He's so thrilled. It's inconceivable to me that he can have this freedom," Welch says.

Bridging the sensory gap

Of course, computers, cell phones, and tablets are designed with sighted users in mind. Adaptive equipment that aids users with visual impairments has opened up this world of enhanced communication for them as well.

Adaptable keyboards, called PACmates, allow people who are visually impaired to modify their computer keyboard with cells, or Braille keys. Screen readers, which use speech synthesizers to communicate information appearing on the monitor, and screen magnifiers, which enlarge portions of the screen as directed by the mouse, allow children with visual impairments to make use of the many technologies available to their sighted peers.

Technological advances have also revolutionized communication for users who are hearing impaired. Webcams have improved the functionality of traditional Text Telephone Devices (TTYs), now allowing a sign language translator to view and relay messages to a recipient on the phone, and vice versa. Of course, the wide availability of email, instant messaging, and cell phones with texting capabilities allows many hearing impaired users to circumvent such devices entirely.

Improvements in auditory-assistive technology have provided even more opportunities for children with hearing impairment to engage in the world around them. Ten-year-old Alyna Cook of Wake Forest, who is profoundly hearing impaired, has bilateral cochlear implants — surgically implanted devices that provide a sense of sound for understanding speech and environmental sounds — and uses an array of other technology as well.

"She is very good at communicating and interacting with others, thanks to the technology she has been able to use," explains her mother, Margot Filippini. "Alyna's FM [listening system] allows her to miss much less at school. She can connect her cochlear implants directly to computers, iPods, DVD players in the car, etc. She loves to listen to music."

While noting that there are still some environments, such as the noisy school cafeteria, in which the assistive hearing devices don't work as well, Filippini is thrilled at how successfully her daughter has kept up with her hearing classmates. "It is truly amazing to see a deaf child doing everything her peers are doing," she says.

Using high-tech at school

Educators are also exploring how computers, software and other assistive technologies can be tailored to the needs of students in special education, such as those with learning disabilities.

Sometimes the solutions are decidedly high-tech. For students who struggle with written communication, software such as Dragon Dictation, which transcribes verbal communication into written form, can be helpful. Recording devices and related apps are extremely helpful to students with processing disorders so they can listen to class lectures, in lieu of written notes, when reviewing material. Teachers using SmartBoards can email or print class notes for students for whom note-taking is difficult or distracting.

Innovations with educational uses just keep coming. Software can now scan entire books and transcribe them to audio for students with reading difficulties. Handheld devices with large stores of memory for taking dictation are designed to assist children with conditions such as dyslexia, which makes writing and reading a challenge. "Smart" pens record and link audio to material the user sees, hears and writes.

However, cautions Julie Kagy, state consultant for visual impairment and assistive technology for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction's Exceptional Children Division, not every child with a disability needs such a high level of technological intervention.

"Parents tend to want what is best for their child," she says. "But this doesn't mean it's the most expensive [or high-tech]. In fact, the most expensive things aren't usually user-friendly, or it has unnecessary software that isn't needed."

Particularly with the expense that is involved in acquiring some of these devices or software, experts urge parents to work closely with teachers in assessing their child's needs and their goals in selecting adaptive technology.

Finding funding

When taking advantage of advancements in technology is the best strategy to help a child manage a disability, cost is often a factor. Fortunately for families without the financial resources to purchase equipment, government agencies and nonprofits offer funding assistance for some assistive technology. The North Carolina Assistive Technology Program (NCATP) is one resource for families. Funded at the state and federal levels, NCATP helps people of all ages and abilities, partnering with schools and agencies to offer assessments that determine a need for a device, matching individuals with equipment, and providing demonstration, training and consultations.

NCATP is organizing a "GREAT" (Global Rehabilitation Enhanced with Assistive Technology) Conference Dec. 5-7, 2012, at the Raleigh Convention Center, where parents can learn what kinds of assistance may be available. Check ncatp.org for details.

Nonprofits that support individuals with special needs may also help families find assistance. For example, The Arc of Wake County and the United Way of the Greater Triangle offer "Teaming for Technology," which helps get refurbished computers to schools and students who need them. Learn more at unitedwaytriangle.org/t4t.

While lending libraries are not as common as they once were, some still exist. For example, the Generations - Tadpole Lending Library (tadpole.org) serves individuals of all ages with developmental disabilities, offering low-tech technology devices such as augmentative communication devices, computer hardware and alternative learning kits free to families and professionals across the state.

Weighing the benefits

As parents of children with special needs know, there are no little steps. Every breakthrough in independence, whether it's performing to potential on an important school assignment, accessing resources on the World Wide Web, or even asking for something special for dinner, is a monumental moment that parents of children with disabilities don't take for granted.

For families like the Welches, their investment in new technology has changed their lives.

"There's no way to explain or measure the difference in him," Welch says. "His temperament has improved and his level of frustration has greatly diminished. I laugh even when he tells me he doesn't like his dinner."

Julia Garstecki teaches in a developmental reading program at Jamestown Community College and is an advocate for students with disabilities and mom to son Andrew, who has Apraxia and PDD-NOS.

For more information

Assistive Technology: A Parent's Guide – Search greatschools.org for "E-ssential tips: A parent's guide to assistive technology" and download the PDF linked at the bottom of the article.

BrightHub.com – Searchable articles on technology, science and education, including up-to-date information on using assistive technology in the school setting.

Disaboom.com – Information and resources for people with disabilities, including articles on technology and parenting.

Find more resources under "Adaptive Equipment/Assistive Technology," beginning on p. 25 of our Special Kids guide.

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