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Special Adaptations

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Felipe Aquino wheels into his class at Fairhill Elementary School and starts tapping on the keys of a laptop computer mounted on his electric wheelchair. His teacher and two technology specialists huddle around the 10-year-old and smile.

Felipe, who has limited speech and mobility as a result of his cerebral palsy, types out a message with the head pointer strapped to his forehead. As the letters appear on the screen before him, the digitized voice of his Apple Macintosh sounds out the words: "I think my computer is pretty cool." The 5th grader cranes his head backward and unleashes a devilish grin.

This display of computer dexterity is not that unusual in the Fairfax County, Va., public schools, an affluent district bordering Washington. The nation's 13th-largest school district, Fairfax boasts one of the best-equipped technology programs for special-education students in the country, says Ellen Schiller who oversees special-education technology at the U.S. Education Department. As such, the district stands at the forefront of a high-tech revolution that promises to advance learning opportunities for students with disabilities. Out of their two-room Integrated Technology Services Center, which is housed in a former school building, 14 computer and special-education experts serve the district's 19,000 special-education students who have disabilities ranging from quadriplegia to dyslexia. The district's total enrollment is 190,000.

Fairfax invests more than $2 million a year to provide disabled students with the most advanced technological tools on the market. That's far more than the average school district spends each year on basic computer equipment--let alone on special-education technologies, says Schiller. Despite the Education Department's efforts to jump-start the process by funding creative technology projects in dozens of states, Schiller estimates that still fewer than 30 school districts are using these tools in the classroom.

But Fairfax officials don't doubt that it's money well spent. At a time when schools across the country have come under increasing pressure from state and federal mandates to mainstream special-education students, Fairfax school leaders see these high-tech devices as invaluable tools to help students with disabilities adapt to regular classrooms.

But, education experts warn, success does not just mean a well-equipped technology center. These technological gadgets must also be hardwired into the schools' educational programs.

Homework in Small Bites

Classes are in full swing on this early March morning at Falls Church High School. Elena Herman charges into the computer lab on her motorized wheelchair, ready to work on her health and geography homework. Her cerebral palsy, which she was born with, has made her severely physically disabled and limited her ability to speak. Yet, with computerized switches placed near her head, knee, and right hand, the spunky 11th grader aces nearly all of her class assignments.

Flipping her brown ponytail behind her head brace, she clicks a switch and turns on the Dynavox mounted on a plastic desk attached to her wheelchair. The communications device--which retails for about $7,000 and just surfaced in the last two years--displays a screen of rows of gray boxes. Each square contains a different icon: a map for her geography homework, a water glass for her special needs, a happy face for her personal files. The sophisticated computer automatically scans sections of the screen, and Elena taps once with her knee when she wants to stop on a particular quadrant.

With a swift kick, she clicks on a picture of a book and then an "H" to call up her health homework, which she finished yesterday so she could answer questions today. "Taking too much over-the-counter medicine is dangerous," begins a deep mechanized voice. When she's done, Elena deftly taps the hand switch and calls up her geography assignment. "Tropical storm Florida was scheduled to hit Key Largo," drones the digitized voice.

But Elena doesn't use the Dynavox just to keep her grades up. She has programmed it to say "cool" and "yeah, right" for chatting in the halls. And to the chagrin of her fellow students, she has even programmed the baritone voice of her Dynavox to sing "Blue Hawaii" on command.

"Just because a teenager is in a wheelchair doesn't mean she's not going to have the same concerns as any other teenager," says William Reider, who has been the director of Fairfax's Integrated Technology Services Center since 1980. These technologies, he adds, allow students' personalities to emerge so they can really participate in the school environment.

To Know What They Know

What's more, Reider says, technologies that enable students to communicate have also made educational assessments of nonverbal and physically disabled students more accurate. These tools give educators the means to test ability levels or diagnose whether a student has a reading-comprehension problem. Such assessments, he adds, were virtually impossible before.

The Touch Talker, for example, helps gauge a student's reaction instantly. The portable computer board, which sounds out a word or sentence when an individual square is depressed, helps preschoolers with delayed language development connect pictures with sounds. Other tools, such as wrist weights and keyboard overlays, help physically challenged students with spastic limbs stabilize their fingers on the keys.

Across the hall from Felipe at Fairhill Elementary, 3rd grader Hazem Eldarwish taps out a math problem on a computer keyboard fitted with a clear plastic overlay that helps him zero in on the keys without straying. Hazem's speech impediments and physical disabilities are a result of Lesch-Nyhan syndrome, a rare genetic disorder. But his disability has not hampered his arithmetic. Though each key stroke is something of an aerobic feat, Hazem smiles triumphantly as the equation 5 + 2 = 7 appears on the screen.

"A decade ago, Hazem and Felipe would've been in a class with retarded students because they wouldn't have had the ability to communicate their intelligence," Reider says. "There would've been an assumption that they couldn't do the work."

Felipe's mother, Lindesay Aquino, agrees. "Felipe is lucky to have been born when he did because this adaptive technology has all happened in his lifetime," she says. "If he had been born five years earlier, he wouldn't have had these opportunities."

Software for the Learning Disabled

For students with less visible challenges to learning, these emerging computer technologies can bejust as useful.

At Fairfax's West Springfield Elementary School, a class of 65 1st graders gathers in one room as their teachers ask them to volunteer to spell a hundred words. Interspersed in the well-behaved crowd are seven special-education students, most of whom have been diagnosed with a learning disability. Alexandra Martin's teachers say the hyperactive 6-year-old has difficulty processing and retaining information. But today, she stands right up in the group and tries to spell out a word. After a few minutes of repeating the letter "W," she gets agitated.

Alexandra's teacher, Dana Gillespie, pulls her out of the group and sits her down at a Macintosh computer in the corner of the room. The diminutive girl slides into the seat and clicks on a software program called "Sammy's Science House" where she is asked to differentiate between objects on a screen. She quickly drops a blue pelican into a garbage can labeled "no tails" and puts a stegosaurus in one marked "dinosaur." As she breezes through the program, which is put out by the Edmark Corporation, a software company based in Redmond, Wash., Alexandra is transformed into a calm, confident student.

"Ali was at loose ends in a group setting," Gillespie says. "But when she got to the computer, she knew her boundaries, and she was fine." Gillespie attributes Alexandra's mood change to the literal, physical barriers that the computer, desk, and chair provide.

But aside from the structured environment computers give her, software programs, like the popular "Sammy's Science House," also help learning-disabled students focus and achieve. If an exercise is too difficult and the student gets the wrong answer, for example, the program will automatically go to an easier question. It also reinforces correct answers with happy faces and positive messages.

"This software is good for any kid," Gillespie says. "But it's especially good for special-education kids who have a difficult time achieving success. This gives them a feeling of pride and self reliance."

But not all of the district's teachers have been as enthusiastic as Gillespie about these emerging technologies. Some see computers--now in each of the district's 1,500 classrooms--as pacifiers, not learning tools.

"Teachers are the main stumbling block," says Janis Speck, a communications specialist for the Integrated Technology Services Center. Too often, she charges, students know more about the technology than the teachers. To change that, the center holds teacher-training sessions every day after school, and the district counts the hours toward teacher-certification credits. Over the years, interest in the program has been slowly building. And Reider hopes that public acceptance will mount as more districts look at technology as a means to accelerate the inclusion process.

Most computer industry observers predict that assistive technologies will one day become as commonplace in the classroom as personal computers are at home. "We are going to see a big thrust in utilizing technology to meet the needs of people with disabilities in the next decade," says Michael Behrmann, a professor of special education at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and the director of the Center for Human DisAbilities.

Still, many special-education technology products remain out of reach for many school districts. Outfitting an average-sized district can cost up to $200,000. And system maintenance can add even more to the bill. Speck says she gets calls to perform "telesurgery" from teachers three times a week because computers loaded with new software break down easily.

Despite these challenges, Behrman can only use superlatives to describe the future of the field. "The technology is phenomenal," he enthuses. "We are now able to truly maximize people's capabilities, and that is going to be tremendous.

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