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Cruising the information highway ... on a scooter.

"Wake up! " calls Mary Helen Gunkler, though there's no one else in the room. "Wake up!" she repeats, slightly louder.

Suddenly, her computer springs to life, ready to perform almost any task from writing memos and connecting her with friends on the Internet to balancing her checkbook and paying bills. It even dials the telephone -- all at the command of her voice.

Ms. Gunkler, a Minnesotan who has had MS for five years, has been a quadriplegic for nearly two. She had to give up her job as a dietitian at a major food company. But getting a computer with state-of-the-art voice recognition software has turned her life around; someday she expects to work in her profession again.

"Having my computer is like having the prison doors opened," she said.

There's no shortage of success stories about how computers have opened whole new worlds for people with disabilities. But for every happy ending, there's someone who has missed out on the technological help he or she needs. If you haven't "gotten into" computers yet, you'll be surprised to learn how easy it is. And, though they're often tough to find, resources are available to help you get started.

What's Out There?

No matter what your level of disability, there is probably an assistive device that can help. Using computer-based technology can compensate when you've lost an ability -- for instance, a speech synthesizer can "speak" aloud any text you type in, if you cannot speak aloud yourself. You can also use a computer to help restore other functions, such as sharpening your concentration skills with a "thinking" software program.

The options range from high- to low-tech. Here's a small sampling of the possibilities:

* Miniature keyboards that allow you to type if you have a limited range of motion.

* Electronic "pointers" -- stickers worn on your forehead, finger, or foot -- that allow you to point to commands on a computer screen if you can't use a keyboard.

* Keyguards to prevent accidental keystrokes if you have tremors.

* Screen enlargers that enhance computer screen size if your vision is limited.

* Word prediction software that helps conserve your energy by automatically filling in a choice of commonly used words or phrases once you've typed in a few first letters of a word.

* Screen readers that can read aloud whatever's on the computer screen (say, the newspaper, downloaded from the Internet).

For ideas about how a computer might help you, talk first with the service providers you work with -- your physical therapists, rehabilitation specialists, and professionals in social service agencies. Chances are, some of them have experience with devices that are appropriate for you.

Other good sources of information include computer magazines and local computer users' groups -- special interest clubs for people who are into computers. Check a local computer store to find out about groups in your area.

Getting an Evaluation

Before you buy anything, experts urge, get a computer access evaluation to determine what your needs are and how assistive technology can help. The evaluation staff should have expertise in both computer operation and in working with people who have disabilities. During the evaluation, you can try out different systems to see what works best for you.

To get an evaluation, ask local rehabilitation agencies, hospitals, or independent living centers (see "Resources" on pages 6-7). Another option is your state's Tech Act project. These centers are found in each state, under the mandate of the 1988 Technology-related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act (P.L. 99407). They were established to help people with disabilities get the assistive technology they need. (RESNA, an organization listed in the "Resources" section, can help you locate the project in your state.)

Help with Funding

Once you've determined what you need, you'll probably need some help with the bill. Technology is rarely inexpensive. Fortunately, there are several ways to get financial aid, though you may have to do much of the digging yourself.

Check your insurance company policy first to see if computers (sometimes called "durable medical equipment") are covered. Your state's Tech Act project may have information about local sources of financing, public and private.

"Public disability funding largely falls into three categories: vocational rehabilitation, special education, and Medicaid," notes Nell Bailey, Director of RESNA's Technical Assistance Project. Each has specific eligibility criteria. Vocational rehabilitation provides technology that enables people to work at jobs ("although you may also be able to get approved for a device that allows you to live independently," claims Ms. Bailey). Special Education is geared toward providing educational access for disabled children through age 21 -- and devices must be used for schooling. In both instances, the technology should be included in the person's individualized plan. Medicaid may help you pay for an assistive device if it is associated with a specific medical need.

Applying for public funding can be complicated, Nell Bailey said, since it requires specific procedures and documentation. The first and most important step in the process is to obtain a thorough evaluation and assessment. Enlist your doctors, occupational therapists, and the other qualified professionals you work with to write evaluations documenting your needs. "Be persistent," she urged, "and provide justification that you need the device."

Shelley Peterman Schwarz, a Wisconsin-based writer whose work often appears in this magazine, got help from Vocational Rehabilitation. A former teacher of the deaf, she had to retire 15 years ago when MS restricted her ability to sign and finger-spell. Today, thanks to her computer (which she manipulates with a single hand), she's written more than 200 magazine and newspaper articles and is working on her third book.

Mrs. Schwarz uses a three-wheel scooter and needed a keyboard tray that would slide out perpendicular to her desk and across her lap. She and the vocational rehab staff designed a wooden keyboard tray that slides in and out with a single push. "Now, when I'm finished writing, I can just push the tray in and drive away," she said.

If public funding sources don't come through, you can try some creative approaches. Ronna Linroth,

Funding and Policy Specialist at the STAR Program (System of Technology to Achieve Results) in St. Paul, suggests asking yourself, "What organizations do I belong to?" Groups like the Lions Club, Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), or churches and synagogues often have projects to help people with disabilities. They may even organize a fund-raising drive to help you.

You might also consider a loan. A few banks offer favorable rates for people with disabilities. First Bank, for example, offers an "Accessibility Financing Program specifically for purchases of assistive devices and living aids. (Contact First FinancialLine at 1-800-444-1244 weekdays; TTY 1-800-217-0087.)

Getting Training

Once you've gotten your computer, the most critical step remains: learning how to use it. Manuals are helpful, but for most people they are not enough. Check to see if the manufacturer offers free "get started" classes. Many of the sources you've consulted for funding can also help you find training; your state's Tech Act project or Vocational Rehabilitation office are good places to start.

Rachael Bower, Information Outreach Coordinator at the University of Wisconsin's Trace Research and Development Center, suggests trying vocational/technical schools or community colleges for low-cost computer classes.

Universities are another good source for advice about training, she noted. "Under the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act], universities must make their facilities accessible to students with disabilities. There's usually a department that deals with access issues that might be able to help. There may be a disabled students' group." Or she suggests taking a continuing education class in computers, especially since that may grant you access to the university's computer laboratory.

Shelley Peterman Schwarz advocates seeking out computer-savvy friends and local users' groups. "People who are into computers are usually so helpful and eager to show you what computers can do."

Not Just For Computer Whizzes

If you've read all this and still think computers aren't for you, consider Sidney Rosenthal's story. He'd been a successful medical illustrator in Boston, Massachusetts, until progressive MS rendered his right arm -- his drawing arm -- useless. Forced to retire in his mid-fifties, he passed his business on to his daughter and son. Soon, his children had computerized the operation -- setting him up with a computer, some instruction manuals, and a speakerphone. "I didn't know a thing about computers, but it was sink or swim," he said. "I called my kids whenever I needed help."

Eventually, he mastered the machine. From there he tried drawing software, using 4 mouse with his good hand, and word-processing software for people with typing injuries.

Now, eight years after his "retirement," Mr. Rosenthal's life is busier than ever. He serves as an unpaid consultant in medical illustration, has written a pamphlet on people with disabilities at worship, volunteers at the National MS Society's Massachusetts Chapter, and is an outspoken advocate for people with disabilities. Computer access plays a big role in all these activities.

"Technology shouldn't frighten anyone," he said recently. "You just have to get started. I'm sorry I didn't start sooner."

Resources Information NARIC (National Rehabilitation Information Center) 8455 Colesville Road, Suite 935 Silver Spring, MD 20910 Tel: 800-346-2742 * Fax: 301-587-1967

This telephone information and referral center is a helpful first stop when you're looking for almost any information related to disability. Its library includes government research project reports, resource guides, and directories of disability services. Information provided over the telephone is free, but you'll be charged a small fee for any materials you need copied and sent to you.

RESNA (Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America) 1700 N. Moore Street, Suite 1540 Arlington, VA 22209-1903 Tel: 703-524-6686 * Fax: 703-524-6630 * Website: reshome.htm

RESNA, an association of assistive technology, or AT, professional organizations, can help you locate your state's Tech Act project, and advise you on what kind of help is available in your state. RESNA also has a library of publications related to AT; for a free list, ask for RESNA Press when you call.

ATA (Alliance for Technology Access) 2175 East Francisco Blvd., Suite L San Rafael, CA 94901 Tel: 800-455-7970; 415-455-4575 * E-mail:

ATA is a national network of 41 community-based resource centers that provide technology information to people with disabilities. If you have a technology-related question -- whether it's buying software or modifying a keyboard -- ATA can refer you to the center in your area that may be able to help.

ATA publishes "Computer Resources for People with Disabilities," a guide that outlines options and lists manufacturers and funding sources. A just-updated edition is available in bookstores or can be ordered from ATA directly for $14.95 paperback, $19.95 spiral-bound. Pay by check, money order, Mastercard, or Visa.

ABLEDATA Database and ABLE INFORM Bulletin Board 8455 Colesville Road, Suite 935 Silver Spring, MD 20910 Tel: 800-227-0216 o Fax: 301-587-1967 * Internet: via telnet or BBS:, then option G, then option 1, then option 115.

If you're shopping around for a specific assistive device, contact ABLEDATA. This national database lists information for more than 22,000 products for people with disabilities, from low-tech to high-tech. Listings are posted on an electronic bulletin board that is updated daily.

You can call and have an information specialist search the database for you at no cost. Having a search printout sent to you, however, incurs a nominal charge. You can also access the listings directly via modem, or order the entire database on the CD-ROM called CO-NET by calling 608-262-6966. ABLEDATA also publishes Fact Sheets and Consumer Guides that address specific areas of technology, which are available for a fee.

United Cerebral Palsy Association Assistive Technology Funding and Systems Change Project 1660 L Street NW Washington, DC 20036 Tel: 800-827-0093 * Website: http://

You don't have to have cerebral palsy to benefit from this resource on funding for assistive technology. Information specialists can advise you about funding sources and your potential eligibility, and refer you to resources in your area. Visit the website for news about funding, legislation related to disability, and more.

The Lighthouse Inc. 111 East 59th Street, 11th Floor New York, NY 10022 Attn: Jennifer Jenkins Tel: 800-334-5497

The Lighthouse Inc. publishes "An Introduction to Computer Technology", a booklet describing some of the assistive devices available to people with impaired vision, with a listing of manufacturers. Large print, 18 pages, free. The information specialists can also make referrals to computer training available through local and state agencies.

Publications Computer Access for Persons with Spinal Cord Injury: High Tech and Low Tech Assistive Devices, Techniques and Resources for Independence by Stephanie O'Leary Special Needs Project Worldwide Disability Information Resources 3463 State Street, Suite 282 Santa Barbara, CA 93105 Tel: 800-333-6867 for orders only * Fax: 805-683-2341 * E-mail: snpdbooks

Though aimed at people with spinal cord injuries, this 180-page spiral-bound book is full of helpful information for anyone with limited mobility. It includes basic computer terminology, product descriptions, funding suggestions, success stories, and lists of support programs and vendors. Updated in 1996. $17.95 + 4.00 (or 10% of order total) shipping and handling. (CA residents add sales tax.) Pay by check, money order, Mastercard, or Visa.

Computer Resources for the Disabled Twin Peaks Press P.O. Box 129 Vancouver, WA 98666-0129 Tel: 800-637-2256 or in Wash. 360-694-2462 * Fax: 360-696-3210; attn: Diane * E-mail: 73743.2634@ * Website: www. helen.htm

This booklet lists sources for buying computers or software at a discount, training services, assistive technology-oriented newsletters, Internet and website addresses and more. $19.95 + $3.00 shipping. Pay by check, money order, Mastercard, or Visa.

Extend Their Reach Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association (CEMA) 2500 Wilson Boulevard Arlington, VA 22201 Attn: Amy Davis Tel: 703-907-7614 * E-mail: adavis@

A helpful listing of companies that produce special computer-related products and services for people with disabilities, updated in March 1996. First copy is free; subsequent copies are 90 cents each. Pay by check, money order, Mastercard, Visa, or American Express.

Manufacturers Note: Operating systems for all IBM and Macintosh computers, as well as Microsoft's Windows 95 and Windows NT software, incorporate some features designed to improve access for people with disabilities.

Apple Computer, Inc. Worldwide Disability Solutions Group 1 Infinite Loop, M/S 38-DS Cupertino, CA 95014 Tel: 800-600-7808; TTY- 800-755-0601

If you're looking to modify your Macintosh, or need Mac-compatible software to accommodate a disability, Apple can supply a database of manufacturers of adapted equipment and software. For an overview, request a Mac Access Passport packet.

IBM Independence Series Information Center Building #904-Internal ZIP 9448 11400 Burnet Road Austin, TX 78758 Tel: 800-426-4832; TDD: 800-426-4833

The IBM Independence Series Information Center offers a wide range of IBM-compatible products and software for people with disabilities, including a screen magnifier, speech therapy software, and a screen reader that reads written text aloud, to name a few. IBM will also refer individuals to other companies to meet special needs.

New Haven Computers 201 West Stassney Lane, Suite 426 Austin, TX 78745 Tel: 512-443-8463 * Fax: 512-440-0602

This computer hardware manufacturer designs standard and custom PCs for people with disabilities at a reduced cost.
COPYRIGHT 1996 National Multiple Sclerosis Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:computers for persons with multiple sclerosis; includes directory of resources
Author:Hendley, Joyce
Publication:Inside MS
Date:Dec 22, 1996
Previous Article:Laura gardens.
Next Article:Corner office: a world-wide vision.

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