Third-grader Miles Buchan uses a magnifier to assist him with completing an assignment at Strawberry Park Elementary School.  The magnifier is one of the adaptive devices used for children with disabilities at the school.

Photo by Matt Stensland

Third-grader Miles Buchan uses a magnifier to assist him with completing an assignment at Strawberry Park Elementary School. The magnifier is one of the adaptive devices used for children with disabilities at the school.

Assistive technology helps students with disabilities keep up in school

Opening up doors

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Fourth-grader Ellie Zwak works on her math at Strawberry Park Elementary School by counting plastic monkeys on a light box. Severe needs paraprofessional Barb Smith helps Ellie with her work.

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Strawberry Park Elementary School third-grader Miles Buchan types on his keyboard, which has been altered to make it easier for Miles to distinguish the keys.

— A child with limited sight would have been excluded from many learning activities just 15 years ago. Relegated to large-print books and unable to read classroom handouts, unless specially printed, children with low vision often were left in the dark.

But for students such as local third-grader Miles Buchan, technology now exists - and is present in the Steamboat Springs School District - to help children with disabilities read and write every line of their curriculum.

Gov. Bill Ritter has declared this week "Assistive Technology Awareness Week" for the state, bringing attention to devices that are used to "increase, maintain, or

improve the functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities."

When Marcia Martin began her job as assistive technology coordinator for the Northwest Colorado Board of Cooperative Services, or BOCES, six years ago, there were more than 30,000 devices classified as assistive technology, she said.

Ranging from over-sized pencil grips to the newest touch-screen computer capabilities, any type of adaptation used to help students falls into the category.

Working for BOCES, Martin provides resources to seven school districts, including all three in Routt County. Martin said the technologies most often used are adaptations of everyday software, including features built into operating systems to increase contrast and zoom, read back written text and provide voice-recognition software.

"Almost anything you can think of that someone would need to learn is probably assistive technology," she said.

Martin works with about 25 to 30 students on personalized technology in the BOCES district, but she said many teachers use devices on their own.

"I would say that for almost every student who is receiving some sort of special education services, their teacher is using some sort of assistive technology, whether their teacher consulted with me or not," she said.

Miles, a third-grader at Strawberry Park Elementary School, is affected with albinism, leaving him with very little pigmentation in his skin and eyes and poor eyesight. To help him see his schoolwork he uses a $2,300 magnifying camera system to help him read, write and perform everyday tasks.

Like a magnifying glass on steroids, the camera can zoom in and out on the National Geographic for Kids magazine Miles was reading last week to give him a clear view of creepy, crawly creatures. The camera also can switch to high-contrast or reverse modes, showing the words as white on a black background to help them stand out to Miles' eyes.

Assisting him one day a week is Robin Bremner, a teacher of the visually impaired for 26 years.

"He really is a good writer and quite an artist," Bremner said of Miles. "Because of the assistive technology, we are able to keep him in the classroom with the rest of the kiddos."

Miles showed off his camera display, which Martin says makes him a popular group-mate in the class.

"My hand looks ugly under here," he said as he zoomed in on his pores.

BOCES has no set budget for the assistive technology, but Martin said she has had no requests denied so far. The money comes from grants and dues paid by the districts. The districts also pay for some of the technology, especially software programs, on their own.

Martin said the assistive technology has increased the quality of education for a wide range of students.

"What I did before I had (computers) was largely akin to tutoring. The advent of technology in the schools had just opened countless doors," she said. "Students who had a very hard time with their handwriting can sit at a keyboard and type : and they're just thrilled."

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