High-tech offers a hand to the handicapped. Students, teachers learn new uses for computers, optical readers, radio

Technology in schools means more than having a lab filled with Apple Computers. It can mean giving the handicapped a chance for a top-notch education, a shot at the best jobs, and, ultimately, putting them into the thick of society.

Last week was the 10th anniversary of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which put handicapped students side-by-side with other kids in the classroom.

``The act has changed everything,'' says Madalaine Pugliese, coordinator of Boston's Special Education Technology Resource Center. She hopes more good will come from a movement in Congress to modify the act -- making special learning aids for handicapped students mandatory. ``Now technology is the gravy; I hope soon it will be the meat'' of the law, she says.

Slowly, schools are adapting to the needs of the handicapped. Public schools are buying devices such as enlarged computer keyboards and voice synthesizers that let students who have limited sight, speech, and mobility communicate and learn [see related story page 7]. Schools are concluding that a disability should not deprive a student of a diploma. While technology for the handicapped is not found everywhere, there are some encouraging examples.

The University of California is hooking its computerized library card catalogue to speech synthesizers that can read the information for the visually impaired. The computers will also have Braille keyboards and screens that magnify the print.

The University of North Carolina has Kurzweil reading machines that read text aloud so that a blind person has access to books that aren't written in Braille. The reader is also attached to a computer, so the information can be stored, or printed on a Braille printer.

The university also provides an amplifying system for students with impaired hearing. Instructors wear transmitters which send their words over FM radio signals to receivers worn by students. A similar system for an auditorium converts sound into infrared light beams which can be picked up by the students' receivers.

For those with no learning disability but a handicap such as blindness, money seems to be the big problem. The market for adaptive devices is small: Worldwide sales for equipment for the blind, for example, are between $50- to $75 million; that's as much as IBM sells in two or three hours. With such a small sales volume, such equipment is expensive. The answer, business professionals and others say, is to find general commercial uses for the adaptive equipment and produce it in quantity.

For students with problems that hamper their ability to learn, the hurdles are more basic. ``Just throwing money [into buying technology] doesn't make sense to me,'' says Herbert Rieth, a professor at Peabody College at Vanderbilt University. ``Many states run pell-mell and give everyone an Apple. That does no good if the teachers aren't trained.''

Dr. Rieth, who studies the effectiveness of computers on handicapped children under a grant from the Department of Education, says he has seen cases where computers thwart a student's progress. For example, when a teacher focuses on computer training for the least capable pupil, less handicapped students end up bored.

In cases where computer instruction is carefully chosen and monitored, however, Rieth has seen mildly handicapped students learn 11/2 to 2 years' worth of material in one year.

The other big issue is software -- the educational programs that students need. Many say the government can help in this area, where the commercial market is leaving a void. Rieth notes that the Department of Education has awarded contracts to three universities to develop specific lessons for teaching the handicapped.

Elizabeth McClellan, coordinator for Project RETOOL at the Council for Exceptional Children, says that ``there are clearly places that money can be thrown.'' Rehabilitation centers have trouble getting equipment, a situation that may grow slightly worse.

She notes, however, that aside from teacher training, the biggest problem is letting teachers know what technology is available. ``Creating the linkage between the market and the classroom is an awesome task,'' she says.

Apple Computer, which is a leader in the education market, created an office of special education three months ago. It appears to be a shrewd move for the company, struggling as it is to preserve a market niche against IBM; but it's also a case where market economics promote social progress.

While Apple probably won't create the specific software and adaptive products, it will give companies making those products technical help ``to shorten the production cycle,'' says Alan Brightman, who is heading the project. Apple will also market the products to parents and schools, a function these companies cannot afford.

IBM is filling a critical gap in training, setting up computer camps around the country. It supplies computers, some adaptive devices, and the training staff. On average, 50 kids and rehabilitation teachers go through each two-week session.

``The private sector has been wonderful,'' says Frederick Weintraub, assistant executive director of the Council for Exceptional Children. ``We're delighted with their willingness to devote their energy and research to an area where they can't make much money.''

In terms of accepting and developing the skills of the handicapped, the job marketplace is lagging behind the school system, many say. While the effect of this technology is beginning to take hold, it won't be widespread until employers catch up, says Bud Rizer, research coordinator at the Maryland Rehabilitation Center.

``Eventually we're going to have jobs [for the handicapped],'' he says. ``But at this point there isn't much out there waiting for them.''

Second of two articles. The first ran on Dec. 3.

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