University of South Carolina

Solving problems, changing lives

By Liz McCarthy, lizmccarthy@sc.edu, 803-777-2848

Paula had cerebral palsy making movement very difficult. Often, the staff at her care center would change the television channel to shows they preferred to watch, leaving Paula without a say.

That’s where assistive technology came in. Carol Page and staff helped Paula find the perfect size remote control so that she could control the TV.

Remote control“The difference that made in her life when she could choose her own TV programs – I’ll never forget that smile,” Page said.

Paula’s story is just one of many. The S.C. Assistive Technology Program, which Page directs through the School of Medicine, provides help to any person in South Carolina with a disability by finding technology solutions for many obstacles.

In the program’s resource center there are toys to help children with literacy problems, books with sponges on the corners to help individuals who cannot turn pages, forks and spoons with modifications for individuals with motor control problems and of course, computers and software for a variety of disabilities.

Assistive technology can be anything from complex software or specialty computers to modified, everyday household items, essentially anything that will improve, increase or maintain functional capabilities. And Page and her team help individuals with disabilities pinpoint what can make their lives easier.

“It’s really all about inclusion,” Page said, pointing out a device that reads aloud the content on a storybook page. “This might be for a child that would not be included in a reading circle or reading activity, but using small devices like this, they would have the opportunity to be a part of something they might have been excluded from in the past.”

Mary Alice Bechtler, program coordinator, became fascinated with assistive technology because of how someone with a really severe disability could find a device to help them and change their life, she said.

“It’s a lot of fun when someone comes in with a problem, you’re able to help them out and they leave with a smile on their face or with some hope that they might not have had before,” Bechtler said. “Sometimes it’s something simple. We find some simple way for them to do something – to open a jar – that they couldn’t do before -- the things that we take for granted that some people thought they would never be able to do again. “

Spoons Sometimes individuals will come to the program looking for complicated technology -- a specialized keyboard, for example – but with Page and Bechtler’s help brainstorming solutions, they may leave with a much simpler (and less expensive) device – a typing aid, for example.

“It’s a lot of brainstorming and saying, ‘we’ve got this. Do you think this will work?’ It’s not a, ‘you’ve got this disability. We’ll prescribe this, good-bye.’  It’s definitely about working together to see what’s going to work for the person and to see what the person is willing to use,” Bechtler said. 

The program will help about 500 individuals per year through demonstrations and consultations and will loan about 1,000 pieces of equipment. In the one to two hour consultations, Page and Bechtler will brainstorm technology and solutions that will help each individual’s specialized needs.

“There are no standardized tests for assistive technology,” Page said.

Bechtler said the field of assistive technology continues to change as more people use technology.

“Assistive technology used to be sold through medical catalogues and specialty catalogues, but now we’re finding we are using a lot of stuff that you can get from Amazon,” Bechtler said.

Classrooms with iPads, for example, mean that students who need communication devices can have an app installed on the iPad, “so they all look the same but how they use the iPad can be very different for the kids with disabilities,” Page said.

And sometimes Page and Bechtler are able to brainstorm entirely new devices. One patient was unable to use a regular computer mouse, so Page fashioned a device using a plastic box from the Dollar Store and a sponge to provide a larger surface area for the patient to hit the mouse button.

“Because someone can’t do something doesn’t mean that there’s not a way that they eventually can do something,” Bechtler said. “If you can’t write, or you can’t type or you can’t speak, there may be a way that you can with assistive technology.” 

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Posted: 12/13/12 @ 12:00 AM | Updated: 12/14/12 @ 9:07 AM | Permalink