Durham, N.C. — MELESSA CLARK grins triumphantly at her words on the computer screen.``Joyce and the Bear,'' she has typed, with a 13-year-old's quick imagination. Her story progresses rather slowly though, for she must painstakingly punch each key on her computer with a pencil strapped to her palm.
``How do you like it?' asks her instructor, Jean Sandhofer. Melessa gives her computer a joyful look and then concentrates to voice her reply. ``I love it,'' she manages.
Most kids like to write with computers, but to Melessa this opportunity is special. Born with cerebral palsy, she has never been able to hold a pencil or speak with the effortless fluency of other children. The words that flow from her creative and active mind are stifled by her physical disability.
Educators have known for nearly a decade that computers can open worlds of self-expression to disabled children. But not all disabled children have access to computers.
Melessa won't use a computer in her public school until the 7th grade. And at home, ``money is kind of difficult to come by,'' says her mother, Melinda, a single parent with four children.
A needless waste, thought Ms. Sandhofer, a speech pathologist at Lenox-Baker Children's Hospital in Durham.
With letters, proposals and personal contacts, Sandhofer began urging high-tech companies and professionals to donate older model computers to handicapped children like Melessa. In closets around the county, many of the first personal computers bought in the early 1980s are quietly gathering dust, considered obsolete by their owners.
Melinda Meade, a professor of geography at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was Sandhofer's third success. She agreed to give her old Apple II Plus to Melessa. The donation qualifies for a tax write-off.
``There's nothing wrong with them, but basically the technology is improving so fast that people are upgrading their systems,'' Dr. Meade says.
``There's not a real good resale market for used computers,'' she continues. Meade's new computer, an Apple Macintosh, is much faster and has a memory capacity almost 10 times larger than her old Apple II. But for children's writing, the Apple II is just right. Eighty percent of the children's educational software on the market is compatible with the Apple II, and most computers in schools are Apple IIs.
For less than $250, the Apple II series can be outfitted with voice synthesizers to help speech-handicapped children communicate.
Relatively inexpensive attachments can modify keyboards for use by children with limited physical ability, children who have intelligent minds and a recalcitrant body.
While more hardware has been developed compatible with Apple computers than with IBMs, older-model IBMs can also be modified for handicapped users.
``Not another thing has to be invented,'' says Budd Hagan, co-founder of ``Closing the Gap,'' a newspaper in Minnesota that publicizes computer applications for the disabled. ``So much is out there right now - and most important, it's affordable. People just have to know about it and how to use it.''
``Once upon a time there was a girl named Joyce,'' Melessa types, continuing her word processing lesson. Looking up only to make sure that her mother and older brother, Terriss, share in her excitement, she types, ``She had a bear. The bear was pretty and trained. One day Joyce ...''
Her pencil lingers too long on the letter e, typing a string of e's across the screen. Laughing at the mistake, she backs up and corrects it, concentrating to control the movements of her arm.
To make capital letters, she needs help - that is a two-handed function, and Melessa has a pencil strapped only to her right hand.
``She could just not bother with the capitals,'' Sandhofer tells Mrs. Clark, ``but Melessa is such a perfectionist.''
``Melessa figures out what she wants to do. She figures out how to do it,'' her mother agrees.
It has taken Melessa about five minutes to type four sentences. But she continues, her brown eyes bright with determination.
Until now, her language has been limited mainly to the phrases she approximates with her lips, comprehensible to few outside her family. At school she uses a self-feeding typewriter, but it needs special paper that often runs out. Members of her family sometimes have to write out her homework for her.
Adults have her point to letters on an alphabet board until they guess the words she is trying to say. But Melessa has far more on her mind than someone else's phrases.
``What are you going to write with your computer?'' Sandhofer asks.
``Books,'' Melessa responds. ``Children's books.''
Writing anything takes practice, and that is just the computer's specialty. Most children benefit from the drill and practice educational programs that make studying with a computer fun.
But handicapped children benefit especially, because they usually have had less experience writing and spelling than other children. ``Computers have infinite patience,'' observes Sandhofer.
Melessa's computer ``will give her increased independence in things like letter writing and working on school assignments,'' says Sandhofer. With a spell-checker program, Melessa can spell correctly without the physical problem of opening a dictionary.
The computer helps equalize her performance with that of other children. ``It's something that's extremely motivating because she sees her able-bodied peers using computers,'' Sandhofer notes.
``Any time that you use a machine successfully, it gives you a feeling of power and accomplishment,'' she continues. Dependent on her family to help her eat, bathe, dress, get about in her wheelchair, and communicate with the world, Melessa doesn't have feelings of power and accomplishment very often.
Sandhofer calls Terriss over to learn how to use the word processing program, Bank Street Writer, that Melessa will take home.
``The more everyone in the family plays with it, the more they'll understand it, and be able to troubleshoot,'' she tells Melessa.
In fact, someone in the Clark family will have to turn on the computer and load the program disks every time Melessa wants to write.
The more comfortable the family feels with the computer, the more regularly they will set it up. Terriss, who uses Apple II computers at school, ``will be a big help,'' says Sandhofer.
``All the budget and all the professionals in the world can't take the place of a cooperative and supportive family,'' notes Hagan, father of a deaf youth.
``We've been talking cold technology here, but it's not a mechanistic process. It's all based on love.''