by Corinne F. Hammett
Wheelchair mounts; a padded device holder; a Buddy Button Switch;
an augmented computer keyboard for young children; talking word processors,
and a Co-Writer that is a word prediction profile: this is just a tiny
example of the complex and large array of often highly expensive equipment
that special needs children require to learn skills for daily living
and education. Though Maryland law mandates that schools provide the
equipment, tight budgets, lack of information on what is available and
limited teacher and professional training venues have resulted in enormous
problems. Acting individually, schools and organizations often have
neither the time or the money to plunge wholeheartedly into this vast
resource of technology. Especially when one expensive device is needed
for an individual child.
Susan Garber, Director of AT:LAST and Western MD TAP regional operations, shows off an augmentative communication device in the central MD demonstration center located at the Maryland Rehabilitation Center in NE Baltimore.
What would happen if schools and organizations could combine purchasing power and information? Susan Garber, Executive Director, Maryland Assistive Technology Co-op, in conjunction with the Maryland Technology Assistance Program (MD TAP) of the Governor's Office for Individuals with Disabilities, found the answer. Formerly a special education teacher, Garber then ran the assistive technology program at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for ten years. "It was so frustrating to see the price tag that kept so many children from using the available devices."
In March of 1999, the Co-op and its cooperative buying service was born. Nine schools were soon members; today there are 30 member schools and organizations, spread throughout Maryland. Dramatic evidence of growth. But even more significant is that over $600,000 in equipment costs have been saved by the members since the Co-op began operating.
"We are sitting on the cusp of a giant program," says Garber, who describes herself as an "idea gerbil." Her major interest she says, is not only saving money, but how the children are being benefited. "There's no 'high' greater than the 'high' you can get when you see a child being able to do something that he or she couldn't do before. It's what keeps me going and working on weekends."
Securing grants is another of her passions, "to stay in existence." Other funding comes from MD TAP, the State Department of Education, and the Office of Special Education. Members pay dues of $1,000, on a two-tier system; some pay up front, others with tighter budgets, pay a little more with the purchase of each piece of equipment. Because they are non-profit, the Co-op can accept as members, not only public schools, but organizations, such as United Cerebral Palsy, and private schools.
Getting the word out to schools isn't as easy as one would think, now that Inclusion laws have placed disabled children throughout the school system in each county. And, because there are privacy laws, schools can't give the Co-op the names of special needs children and their parents. Parents need to get information on the Co-op from the member school and then can contact the non-profit plan directly.
What would a parent gain by doing so? Quite a lot, says Garber. First there's training. "We can't just offer the equipment, devices need to be integrated into the educational program and into the child's home life." While the Co-op doesn't now have the staff to take individual orders of equipment from parents--they need to get the equipment through the school--parents can benefit from training programs, special Web sites on equipment, and information on vendor availability and on up-to-date devices.
Parents are as important to a child's learning as are the education professionals. "The equipment belongs to the school," Garber explains, "but if the child needs equipment to do homework, the device can travel to the home." And, if a child has it written into their education plan, the device can go home over the summer. "Communication devices, for example, shouldn't only be available at school, the child should be able to have the ability to talk at home as well."
Training, says Garber, is a major component of the program, and this too has expanded. That first year there was only one training program for educators, professionals and parents, this year there have been 18, throughout the state, and a total of 250 persons have taken part in one of these sessions. Training sessions, including two-day workshops, explain how to evaluate what is the appropriate technology for a specific child; strategies to employ so the educator or parent will be more active participants in the learning process; how to deal with problems, and many other vital pieces of information on the most effective use of the technology.
Another focus is how to use on-line information, and keeping up to date on equipment available. "What keeps me psyched about this field is that there is always something new coming out," says Garber. Equipment can also sometimes be borrowed, so a parent can determine if it is the right device for their child. "This works like a lending library; We have gotten Maryland TAP to have some equipment to loan and we have compiled a Web site showing where people can find used equipment."
How do some of these devices work? The talking word processor, she explains, aids children who have a lot of trouble monitoring their work, so when they get the auditory feedback they know how accurate they are; if a sentence is making sense. The Co-Writer is a word prediction profile, designed originally to reduce the number of keystrokes for persons with physical disability. When a word is begun, the software anticipates what the word might be, generates a short list of several words and the student can choose from the list. "For children who have failed at writing, time and time again, suddenly they can produce much longer and more thoughtful writing. They still need to recognize the word, but the Co-Writer is a tremendous aid."
An alternative keyboard is especially suited for early childhood classrooms where the educator can introduce the child to a computer. The problem, says Garber, is that the standard keyboard has keys that are too tiny for a disabled child; or perhaps the child doesn't have the necessary reading skills. The alternate version might use larger keys, customized by the teacher, and might have pictures, letters and numbers. The computer can read the overlay and this works well for small children.
Evaluating devices and monitoring how well they are utilized in education, is another Co-op interest. The Individual with Disabilities Education Act not only guarantees equipment for the children, but also guarantees an evaluation. Larger schools and systems, she says, are often far more sophisticated than others and have full-time evaluators; smaller schools and smaller counties may have a part-time evaluator. Garber aids in evaluation, a process she enjoys. "I think it is so important to have the child contact, most of the time I have to put all my energy into the Co-op and I live vicariously through stories of how assistive technology has helped, but when I'm part of the evaluating process, I can see first hand what the children are doing."
The Co-op is continuously expanding into new services and devices. Recently added are Aids for Daily Living; equipment and supplies commonly used by occupational and physical therapists, and vision items. Daily Aids might be a hand-held magnifier, telephone amplifier, a long-reacher; devices for persons with arthritis such as a knob turner, extended handles, long-handled hair brushes, gizmos to open jars or boxes. "These are low-tech kinds of things that unfortunately, few people know about. So we go to senior centers and nutrition centers with these items to educate people on what is available, so they can be more independent," explains Garber.
Within weeks the Co-op will know whether they have received a grant applied for with the Developmental Disabilities Council to allow the non-profit agency to expand services to parents. "This is one of our major goals," she says. The grant would also fund outreach to individual schools within a system. Garber is also working on a grant in Western Maryland where the work would be with seniors, making them aware of what is available.
Garber has been so enthusiastic about her work that her family has gotten involved in various ways. Her youngest daughter has done hours of volunteer work for the Co-op, including creating flyers, and designs to be used on printed materials. Her oldest daughter recently got her Masters degree in physical therapy and will work with children. Her husband, now retired, has found an interest in designing and creating new devices for specific needs.
While technology changes rapidly in the field, there's room for new devices, she says, such as "an improved augmentative communication device that would make electronically augmented communications more closely resemble natural communication. If you think of all the things that make humanity what it is, the ability to communicate is the key. That would be a wonderful thing!" says Garber. Who, after all, is involved in helping people communicate.