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November 23, 2003 - Wearable computers give independence, inclusion opportunities

A pilot program using wearable technology has given a "voice" to a student who could not speak and helped 13 other special needs students in the Coventry (Ohio) Local School District excel.

The computers came from Fairfax, Va., technology company Xybernaut Corp. Xybernaut's Mobile Assistant V, a wearable computer, has the power of a desktop computer, but it fits into a student's backpack. It's more durable and easier for a student to handle than a laptop, Coventry officials said.

The computer, which was included in the Xyberkids kit, costs about $5,000. It weighs about one pound and has a 500-megahertz central processing unit and a 5-gigabyte hard drive. It also features an 8.4-inch touch-screen, which can serve as the keyboard. A wrist keyboard can also be used.

The district began using the technology in 2001. Special education teacher Lisa Zverloff was working with a 9-year-old student with autism. Zverloff said the technology he used was immobile and expensive, costing about 9,000.

One evening, Zverloff discussed her frustration to special education teacher Eric Van Raepenbusch, who suggested contacting Xybernaut, a company he owned stock in, about its wearable computers.

The company offered Zverloff a 90-day trial period to use the computer. In that time, she taught the student with autism how to send messages with the computer. He was able to communicate independently. After that success, Van Raepenbusch and Zverloff applied for and received a grant from the Martha Holden Jennings Foundation in Cleveland to purchase more computers for special education classrooms.

The district received four wearable computers from Xybernaut for research, three from the grant and eight more through grants from the Ohio Department of Education Assistive Technology Infusion Grant Program, initiated in September 2001.

The wearable computer helped bridge the gap between students' disabilities and educational curriculum, said Jeanne Gides, director of special services for the Coventry district. Students with cerebral palsy, autism and severe communication disabilities have benefited from the technology, she said.

The district plans to investigate in the coming school year whether the technology will aid a special needs preschool student who cannot speak because of a severe communication disability. The software might help him develop pre-academic skills, Gides said.

Students in inclusion classes have benefited from the technology, Gides said. Van Raepenbusch installed software on the computers to create touch-based lesson reviews he called "topic boards" for his students' inclusion classes. Students were also able to use the topic boards to give five-question quizzes to their classmates at lunch, in hallways, and at recess.

The inclusion students also used the computers in word prediction. For students with writing disabilities, the computer predicted the word a student tried to spell. The student knew he was correct when he picked one and the computer said the right word.

Even a student with a severe reading disability could successfully participate in the general classroom for social studies and science instruction with the wearable computer.

The special education teacher scans the social studies and science material into the wearable, and, through the use of screen reading software, the computer reads text to the student.

So far, Gides said, the district has spent 20,000 for staff development, teacher, support staff and parent training, as well as technology evaluations for participating students, technology support and software.

Zverloff and Van Raepenbusch realize the 5,000 initial cost is a lot to ask school districts for one computer. But they said they are so pleased with the success they have witnessed, they have started a Web site, www.it-clicks.net, to offer assistance to districts considering the technology.

On the Web site the teachers have included information about using the technology for teachers, parents and students. The site also provides information about the grant Coventry received and other funding ideas.

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