A Brave New World for the Disabled

Ed School Conference

Thanks to new technology, advocates of the handicapped are now envisioning a world in which the blind will be able to proofread written work, the paralyzed will be able to use computers, and those with impaired motor skills will be able to use a keyboard with ease.

While a few years ago such a scenario seemed fantastical, an ongoing conference at the Graduate School of Education (GSE) shows that it's fast entering the realm of possibility.

When you first enter the basement of the GSE's Gutman Library, you find yourself at what looks like a typical conference in which Apple or IBM computer hardware and software are showcased, in which spectators "ooh!" and "ahh!" at the latest innovative technology.

But that's not what this computer display is all about.

Just ask Tony Wilson, a staff member for the Technical Aid Assistance for the Disabled in Chicago. Wilson, who has been using a wheelchair since an injury seven years ago, will attend Chicago's Malcolm X. College this fall and says he hopes to work in data processing in the future.

Wilson says he recognizes the importance of this new technology for himself and the roughly 36 million people with disabilities in the U.S. He says he hopes the aid of the new technology will increase his marketability in the workplace.

"What I want now is enough for job status," Wilson says.

Wilson and about 40 others, among them people with disabilities and their parents, developers of technology, and professional educators from a variety of academic disciplines, are taking part in an unprecedented two-week program designed to teach disabled individuals, their parents and educators how to take advantage of the new technology.

The program, entitled "The National Special Education Alliance/Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST)/Harvard Summer Training Institute," seeks to introduce the best available computer equipment to assist people with special needs, and to provide these individuals with the training and practice to use these new tools. The program also aims to identify software that meets individual goals and curricular objectives, and to provide a framework for thinking about the future of technology in the special needs curriculum.

"What has gathered us together is the realization of the uses of technology," said David Rose, executive director of CAST and a lecturer on education for the GSE. "It was very clear that it was very powerful for disabled people."

"Certainly one of the goals is to outreach and to make people with disabilities, parents with family disabilities, professionals who work with disabled individuals to be more aware of what's possible," says Alan J. Brightman, manager of the Office of Special Education of Apple Computer, which is funding the institute.

Virginia Thornburgh, the coordinator of programs for persons with disabilities at the Office of Human Resources, who has spent more than 20 years working on disability issues, termed the program as a "cutting-edge movement in disability concerns."

"I just think it's a great combination of advanced technology and human need," says Thornburgh. "The knowledge is now available to tap the potential of people with great disabilities."

The program is designed for individuals who are potential leaders in the field of technology for special needs. It is being jointly sponsored by the National Special Education Alliance (NSEA) and CAST.

NSEA is a rapidly growing, nationwide coalition of 23 community resource centers, professional organizations and technology vendors working together to increase awareness, understanding and implementation of microcomputer technology to aid disabled children and adults.

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