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Digital revolution changing lives of students with disabilities

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
February 26, 2012
— Kyle Beasley is a smart second-grader with an infectious grin.

He's also functionally blind.


Until last fall, the 7-year-old used, 8-by-11-inch Braille texts that teachers printed for him on a special machine.


Each page cost about $1. He once had four lockers just to store his textbooks.


Today, the student at Roosevelt Elementary School easily carries his own iPad and a special Braille translator that allow him to read all his textbooks, send emails, access the Internet, check the weather and do just about anything anyone else can do with a computer.


It's new technology that is fundamentally changing how blind people interact with their world, but it appears the digital revolution is just getting started when it comes to improving the lives of people with all sorts of disabilities.


Some of the developments border on the magical, compared with what was available 20 years ago. Schools are the places where people first encounter them.


Educators are scrambling to keep up with developments for those who can't see, can't hear, whose minds have trouble with the written word, who can't use their arms or legs and even those who can do little more than move their eyes.


The Janesville School District employs a teacher whose job is to find the technology that best suits each student who has a disability. Her name is Kathy White.


"Technology is exploding for us," White said.


Keeping up is a challenge, but colleagues said White is very good at it.


"Kathy White is a master at figuring out what students need then finding, adapting or building what is necessary to further enhance a student's ability to learn," Superintendent Karen Schulte said.


White keeps abreast of developments and matches the emerging technologies with the hundreds of students in the Janesville School District who have disabilities.


Kyle's translator—called Refreshabraille—is just one example. It has a Braille keyboard that allows Kyle to write as well as read. It communicates with his iPad, translating his Braille into English, and English into Braille.


Plastic Braille dots pop up instantly on a pad, corresponding to a text displayed on the iPad. Bluetooth technology lets the two devices "talk" to each other.


Kyle expertly reads the dots with his index finger. When he's done with one set of dots, the next set pops up.


Keeping up in class is easy, Kyle said with a proud smile.


Asked how he likes his Refreshabraille compared with paper texts, his face glowed proudly.


"I can read it faster," he said.


There's a learning curve, and Baumunk teaches Kyle problem-solving strategies for when he gets stuck, but he appears to have learned quickly since he got the devices last fall.


"It's making him incredibly independent," Baumunk said.


White gets calls from teachers who have students stymied by disabilities. White looks for a technology to overcome the barriers. She works with every age in the school district, from 12th-graders to 3-year-olds. The range of needs is wide.


Consider Correy Winke, who was slated for a slow-paced science class when he entered Parker High School about 18 months ago. College "was the farthest thing from my mind," he said.


Correy has dyslexia. His mind has trouble processing the printed word.


White figured Correy had what it takes to reach higher. She helped him get an iPod and a laptop computer, along with software that will read any text to him out loud and guess at the words he needs as he writes a class assignment.


He deftly manipulated a cellphone application and writing programs on his laptop as he showed a visitor how it all works.


Now a sophomore, Correy is pulling down A's and B's and taking courses such as honors geometry. Asked if he can handle the work, he responded with a confident, "Oh, yeah!"


There was a time when Correy would have had an aide assigned to him or perhaps even been placed in a special-education class.


"I'm in all regular classes," he says proudly.


Correy has a questioning mind. He is learning guitar and hopes to become a music producer. He recently decided he wants to read "Macbeth."


"I like a challenge," he said.


He's focused on getting into college.


"That wasn't even on the radar" when he was in middle school, White said.


White checks in with Correy about once a week. Now that he has gotten more adept with the technology, she will back off, she said.


White often has to prove that a particular kind of technology is what's best for a student. Once she has the proof, she can apply for the money to pay for it, often through Medical Assistance.


Funding is crucial because anything that is made to help with disabilities is bound to be expensive, she said.


One such case was a young girl who had never moved unless someone moved her. White thought she could handle a motorized wheelchair, but the girl could not control her hand well enough to drive one.


White got a motorized toy car from a store, rebuilt the seat and re-wired it so the girl could flip a switch to make it go.


White's father was a millwright at the Kenosha Chrysler plant, she said, so she inherited some of his skills.


"I like to do things like that when I have time to play around," she said.


The experiment was an instant success for the girl.


She was laughing so hard … we kept telling her to breathe," White recalled.


With that proof in hand, White was able to request that Medical Assistance cover the cost of a modified power chair.


Dealing with a computer keyboard is a challenge for many of White's students. She has found keyboards with larger- or smaller-than-standard keys, alternative key configurations, and keyboards for use with one hand.


White recently borrowed a computer system called a Tobii Communicator in hopes it would help a few students who don't have the use of their hands at all.


Developed for the paraplegic war wounded, the Tobii includes a camera that tracks a person's eye movements. Gazing steadily at designated spots on the computer screen is like pressing a button or clicking a mouse. It allows someone whose hands don't work to access the Internet and much more.


With the right connected hardware, a person can switch lights or a TV off and on, drive a powered wheelchair or even open a door. Users can write and send email or do just about anything else with a computer.


Three students are using borrowed equipment, and White hopes to document their efforts so they can get funding for their own machines.


"The students who are using it are using it extremely well," White said, and they're "extremely excited" once they see the possibilities to do things they have never been able to do for themselves.


"They become so empowered," White said.


One drawback: Constant concentration on controlling the dot on the screen can be draining.


White estimates she visits 50 to 60 students a week, helping them learn their new software or hardware, but that's not the biggest challenge.


"The hardest part for us is to keep up with what's going on," she said.



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