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New uses for old computers

Recycling Opportunity

By Jeffrey K. VanSchaick

New word processing, spreadsheet, graphics, and database management software necessitate faster, more powerful computer hardware in the contemporary office. However, don't consign those 286 and 386 machines to the basement just yet. Technology that may be obsolete for the purposes of today's business could open up a world of educational and vocational opportunities for individuals with disabilities in your community and help them to make a more productive life for themselves.

Eddie F. is 19 years old and has cerebral palsy. His physical limitations are evident: an absence of mobility in his arms and legs, the inability to speak, and only minimal control of his head and neck. And yet Eddie remains an intelligent teenager with a world of potential. Increasingly, it has been the computer that has succeeded in accessing Eddie's abilities and tapping into this potential. As part of his secondary curriculum at the Kevin G. Langan School, part of the Center for the Disabled in Albany, Eddie utilizes Wordperfect 5.1 to complete his homework, and is undergoing vocational training in the word processing of memos, letters to parents, and similar documents produced in the school office. He is even engaged in learning about personal finances via a "Check Minder" program written for those with disabilities at the center. Eddie accomplishes all these tasks with just a small 286 personal computer and a "head pointer"--nothing more than an old car antenna strapped to his head with velcro--by which he accesses the keyboard.

There are approximately 160,000 students enrolled in special education programs in New York State schools, and many thousands more young adults in school-to-work transition settings and vocational rehabilitation workshops. What these young people possess in abundance is the desire to learn and, in many cases, cognitive, creative, and other intellectual capacities that rival their nondisabled counterparts. And, like other children and teens with no apparent disability, these individuals will soon be entering a contracting job market consisting of increasingly complex occupations. The demand for adequate reading, writing, and mathematics skills remains as strong as ever. What students with and without disabilities will need are higher order cognitive skills like analysis, problem-solving, and the ability to apply knowledge to new contexts or ideas. They will also need to, as a matter of necessity, be computer literate.

When Bill M. was a young boy growing up in Troy, New York, his cerebral palsy and resulting lack of motor and vocal abilities left him with no means by which to express himself or communicate with others. He possessed few physical capabilities and, seemingly, even fewer opportunities for a productive lifestyle. It is true that specialized educational methodologies and traditional therapies have contributed significantly to Bill's development. However, it has been the computer that has led to real breakthroughs. Conventional hardware, enhanced with adaptive technology, has enabled Bill to further his education in mathematics and literacy, to the point where he is now engaged in studies toward his General Equivalency Diploma (GED) and pursuing vocational training in data entry. Software and adaptive switches used in combination with this hardware have even created a computer synthesized voice output system that has finally given Bill a true voice of his own. Today Bill has aspirations of attending college, and with the assistance of computers, this goal is not beyond his grasp.

We are, of course, familiar with what the computer can accomplish for us in our everyday lives by means of word processing and accounting software, e-mail, the Internet, and the like. However, as useful as computers have been for business and communications, there is perhaps no group for whom such technology has been as personally enriching as individuals with physical disabilities. Regardless of the disability, the computer has repeatedly proven to be a primary means by which to minimize these physical and cognitive limitations. Even the run-of-the-mill PC or laptop can be outfitted with inexpensive adaptive accessories like braille keyboards or magnification software and intuitive interfaces that allow the blind and visually impaired to interact not only with text-based applications but also Windows and other commercial software shells and menu programs, and even graphical programs. Such standard hardware can also be fitted with text-to-speech synthesizing tools that provide verbalization of all screen features, including menus, text, and graphical characteristics. This does not just aid the visually impaired; it has given a voice to those long silent due to physical speech impairments. Of course, even the severely disabled person, who may have only the ability to move his or her head or neck, can access a computer terminal with some very simple adaptive pointing devices.

The key piece of technology is, of course, the computer. If the desktop PC or networked terminal has become a necessity in today's workplace or public school classroom, it is even more crucial to success in the special education or vocational training environment. Federal and state initiatives emphasizing "normalization," which involve helping people with disabilities and other special needs to better integrate into the community, have led many providers of special education and vocational workshops to develop specialized educational and job training programs. Such programs utilize computer and other rehabilitation engineering technology adapted to assist such individuals in attaining their GED and learning job skills like word processing, data entry, and bookkeeping. In this context, the computer enables most important learning activities. The same is true when practical experience is the objective. Most career development competencies can be integrated into instructional programs that stress technical education, work-based learning, and both structured and exploratory work experience.

Take the aforementioned Center for the Disabled as an example. In 1994, a technology transfer of just 10 personal computers from IBM's inventory allowed the agency's vocational training area to develop a unique Technological Opportunities Program (TOP), one of a number of such programs across the state. TOP enabled a number of young people with severe physical disabilities to enhance their personal communication abilities and employment skills, at first through pro bono technological instruction from IBM and then by means of one-to-one guidance from center vocational counselors. Consumers with disabilities now get hands-on operative experience with contemporary computer hardware and software by means of specialized modifications like head switches designed by occupational therapists to learn vocational skills using word processing and spreadsheet software like Wordperfect and Lotus 1-2-3. Many have also taken advantage of academic tutoring to work toward their GED. These individuals have even logged on to both the Internet and America Online, where they communicate with others with disabilities statewide in an effort to affect relevant disability legislation.

The ultimate goal of TOP is employment in the business world by means of these vocational and social supports. To that end, TOP offers in-house jobs such as the tallying of consumer payroll sheets, data transfers, word processing, and recordkeeping, for which a wage is paid. TOP has even worked with a community-based employment services component at the agency to place several individuals into jobs in the community.

Like many with physical disabilities, 27-year-old Maria F. must now play the waiting game in her efforts to forge a better future for herself. Although she was born with cerebral palsy, Maria completed a secondary-level special education curriculum and attained her GED. Although computer technology played a significant role in these successes, the lack of such technology is now proving a barrier to further development. Maria takes several college courses, helps out with her father's business, and dabbles in creative writing. However, her real objective is to engage in vocational training so that she might put her skills and intellect to work in meaningful employment. For now, she has had to content herself with attending the Center for the Disabled's Technological Opportunities Program one day per week while remaining on a lengthy waiting list to enroll in the program full-time. The reason for this wait is simple; the agency does not currently have sufficient hardware to provide her and those like her with time at the keyboard, and, in the face of state and budget cuts, there is little promise of additional resources to devote to such needed technology in the future.

In terms of basic hardware, the computer needs of the child or young adult with a severe physical disability are by no means elaborate. When the means of accessing a keyboard is a head pointer, the 286 or 386 can provide all the processing speed a student or vocationally-minded young adult will need. At the same time, the 286 and 386 have become obsolete for the accounting, networking, and office functions of today's business world. Just consider the everyday requirements of the contemporary office computer. Accounting solutions like Personal Tax Edge, Turbo Tax, and certainly Tax Management Portfolios Plus for Windows, require at least four megs of RAM to run efficiently, eight if multitasking with multiple windows. Original Windows software was never meant to run on 286 machines; contemporary versions such as Microsoft Office for Windows 95 demand at least a 386 DX or higher processor, with a 486 recommended for optimum performance. Internet interface software like TCP/IP requires 486/33 hardware, 8 Mb of RAM and 2-3 Mb of free hard-disk space. Many of these packages are currently being released in CD-ROM, creating a necessity for built-in drives of this type and multimedia kits.

This rapid advance in computer hardware and software is resulting in a growing amount of used technology, and even new inventory, that is perfectly sound yet largely ineffectual for today's business office. This same technology would be perfectly suited to individuals with disabilities and could make a big difference in their ability to realize their vocational potential and make a productive life for themselves.

In the past 31 years, Ed B. has been shuttled from nursing home to intermediate care facility to state developmental center. At the same time, Ed has always harbored the dream of living on his own, and he has taken a substantial risk to improve his quality of life to live in a place that he could call his own, with the help of computer technology. In 1993, Ed moved into his own apartment, one equipped with state-of-the-art "sip-and-puff switches," stand-alone remote-control boxes, and receiver modules that allow him to control his environment from his computer. He speaks via a "liberator," an augmentative communication computer attached to the battery of his electric wheelchair. Ed's professional life has been similarly difficult, as funding cuts have repeatedly eliminated his work programs with the state or at private businesses. However, it has been Ed's proficiency with the computer that has always enabled him to land on his feet, so to speak, and resume his career. Ed's skill with computers has now led to his promotion to quality-control specialist at the Center for the Disabled's Vocational and Adult Services Division, where he mentors other teens and young adults with disabilities as they master word processing, spreadsheet, and other software applications.

The fact there are so many 286 and 386 paperweights out there has given contemporary for-profit firms and individuals unique and innovative methods by which they can make a difference in the lives of those with special needs in their communities. Rather than rely on conventional cash contributions for operational support, today's for-profits are utilizing direct transfers of the tools of business and pro bono assistance.

The objective here should not just be to secure a contribution but rather convince people that they're making an investment that will improve lives or empower others to do it for themselves. This benefits the individual consumer, the charitable organization, and society as a whole. This concept opens the door for more unique and innovative partnerships between the for-profit and not-for-profit in their joint efforts to assure continued provision of highly specialized services for people in need in their communities. Such "investment," i.e. the transfer of business tools and knowledge to consumers and staff at charitable organizations, is frequently much easier for the for-profit firm, professional group, or individual to make, and is
a more direct way of satisfying the not-for-profit's need for capital improvements, technical support, and overall program growth.

Dave has nearly made it all the way back. Although he suffered a traumatic brain injury at a young age, Dave has made significant progress thanks to the computer hardware and software at the Center for the Disabled's Technological Opportunities Program. The PC has been intimately involved in his education, and reeducation, following his injury, affecting significant improvements in his cognitive rehabilitation and visual training; standard for young people who have experienced a traumatic brain injury. In addition to everyday word processing, Dave handles the payroll database for his co-workers with disabilities, utilizing Vertex Version 4.13, networked with five personal computers. Dave will eventually realize the real goal of this specialized education and vocational training that has come to rely so heavily upon the computer. Soon he will be reintegrated into the general workforce with only minimal supports from community-based human services agencies like the Center for the Disabled. Soon he will go out into the community at large to find a job and a lifestyle all his own. *

Jeffrey K. VanSchaick is grants coordinator for the Center for the Disabled in Albany, NY.


Making a gift of your used computer can be as simple as picking up the phone and calling the development or administration office of the not-for-profit that you wish to assist [the Center for the Disabled can be reached at (518) 437-5605]. However, there has also emerged recently a national network of businesses and organizations involved in routing useful hardware to those in need. A good place to start might be the National Cristina Foundation, which links not-for-profits in need of hardware with businesses, government agencies, and others looking to transfer their outmoded technology to a worthy organization. The foundation can be reached by writing to Ms. Yvette Marrin, National Cristina Foundation, 591 Putnam Avenue, Greenwich CT 06830. *


By Patrick J. Bulgaro

President/Executive Director, Center for the Disabled

When I was director of New York's Budget Division, I had control of $56 billion per annum and access to substantial financial, administrative, and technical resources. Enter the world of the not-for-profit. In 1993, I took over the Albany-based Center for the Disabled, an affiliate of the national and state United Cerebral Palsy Associations and a resource for those with cerebral palsy, mental retardation, traumatic brain injury, etc. We are a comparatively small agency whose operating budget of $36 million depends upon fluctuating, and dwindling, revenue streams like Medicaid/Medicare, Social Security, and community fundraising.

The IRS categorizes such agencies under IRC Section 501(c)(3)--tax-exempt charitable organizations, nonprofits or not-for-profits. Our mission is not to improve upon last year's bottom line but rather to assist those in need. Revenues must first cover expenses for a wide range of programs--everything from halfway houses and counseling for those who misuse alcohol and drugs, or rehabilitation services for the physically disabled, to food pantries for the homeless--as well as salaries and wages for hands-on staff such as therapists, physicians, and nurses. Residual funds support operating expenses and overhead, certainly no easy task. Such a complex array of services, supported by diverse funding sources that require precise documentation for adequate reimbursement, necessitates numerous support staff. Contemporary nonprofits employ accountants to manage each dollar, systems analysts to handle complicated Medicaid billing procedures, and human resources personnel to process and train the teachers, bus drivers, and counselors who interact with consumers.

Unfortunately, what is left out of this equation is supplementary spending for reinvestment in immediate and long-term working capital needs--increasingly computer and related technology--for use in the workshops and classrooms of consumers wishing to enhance both their lives and potential. Such "luxuries" are not taken into consideration in an era of widespread reductions in Federal and state funding for human services and flat individual and corporate giving. This is truly unfortunate for the hundreds of thousands of students and young adults with disabilities. It is astonishing how even a few personal computers, and some initial technical assistance, can improve the lives of people with special needs who wish to become more independent by enhancing their vocational and intellectual potential.

We have recently seen a possible solution to this dilemma, one involving the direct transfers of computer equipment and in-kind technical support to our vocational and other consumer-based programs. This began several years ago when the local division of Proctor and Gamble gave the center four new networked personal computers, complete with CD-ROMs and educational software, for use in our secondary five classroom for children with disabilities. In addition to facilitating practice with the writing of research and opinion papers and other word processing tasks, this technology also provided a Compton's multimedia encyclopedia and voice output capabilities for several speech impaired and nonverbal students. This was complemented in 1994 when IBM came to us with 10 personal computers, which allowed our Vocational Training Program to develop a Technological Opportunities Program (TOP). TOP enabled a number of our young adults with severe physical disabilities to enhance their personal communication abilities and employment skills through pro bono technological instruction from IBM, 1:1 guidance from center vocational counselors, and hands-on operative experience with contemporary computer hardware and software.

The ultimate goal of TOP is employment in the community with a few vocational and social supports. To that end, TOP offers "in house" jobs. Our consumers control the tallying of consumer payroll sheets, data transfers, word processing, and recordkeeping, for which a wage is paid. They also use database software like Alpha 5, contracting out with local businesses and even government on mailing list and similar projects that maximize their computer abilities rather than their physical disabilities. TOP is most successful when it dovetails into our community based employment services, which continue to place individuals with disabilities into jobs in the community.

A Vision of Transformation

Not-for-profits have a vision for computer-based environments like TOP--a vision where such technology is utilized to transform these nascent programs into fully realized technology centers that meet the educational and vocational needs of teens and young adults with special needs. There are now literally thousands of bright and ambitious young individuals with disabilities on the waiting list for these programs. (At our agency alone, for example, there are over 40 young adults awaiting immediate placement, and another 200 potential participants in our special education classes and sheltered vocational workshops.) These programs would welcome IBM compatible 286 and 386 (and certainly 486) personal computers with at least four megabytes of RAM or appropriate server units with integrated PCs. We are also in constant need of printers, networking hardware, and multimedia CD ROMs with appropriate educational and vocational software. And certainly, both the consumers enrolled in the program and their vocational counselors would benefit greatly from training in network hardware and other technical support. Such direct assistance is consistent with the growing demand for the accountability of agencies that utilize public monies and charitable contributions, and can mean a world of difference to the organization strapped for cash.

For the individual with a disability, education and vocational training via the computer makes good sense, for several reasons. Traditionally, the person with a physical disability, particularly those in wheelchairs and with little or no manual dexterity, have had extremely limited vocational options, even with a college education. Now with the computer, which is relatively portable and performs so many tasks on its own, a number of job opportunities are opened up to the person with a disability. This includes everything from clerical occupations to data entry, programming, and systems analysis. Taken in combination with the increasing amounts of enabling peripheral technology, like voice synthesizers and the like, the abilities of a person with a disability on the job have increased a thousand-fold. The benefits of a person with a disability with meaningful employment to society are of course the same as for any individual: decreased reliance on public assistance, an increased personal contribution to his or her own livelihood, and a host of other advantageous consequences. The positive values to the individual are of course less tangible, but no less positive. *

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