All About Multiple Sclerosis

More MS news articles for February 2004

Adaptive technologies open opportunities for those with disabilities

Feb 12, 2004
Beth Rankinen
Cudahy-St. Francis Remimder-Enterprise

Forty-something Phil Palasz's future is reflected in the glare of an oversized computer monitor, the large letters on-screen matching the oversized keys he taps.

As multiple sclerosis causes his eyesight and dexterity to fail, adaptive technology will play a larger role in maintaining his connection to pastimes he enjoys and people he cares for.

Today he is able to work a mouse, but he is preparing for the time when such everyday tasks become impossible. Palasz is one of 23 people who graduated Feb. 4 from St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care's computer program, which pairs those with severe cognitive and physical disabilities or Alzheimer's disease with technology adapted for their needs.

The class was open to all of the clients who go to the center, and also to those who attend Shepherd House, a facility designed for clients with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia.

"It's so exciting to see the joy on the face of someone who cannot talk or that has restricted physical movement," said Sister Edna Lonergan, president of St. Ann Center. "They can use these specialized computers to gain access to the Internet as well as e-mail. It can open up a world of possibility for those who feel alone and isolated."

The participants learned to use the computer by following directions and using a large touch screen or a computer keyboard with big buttons for easier use.

Palasz was the first volunteer to try the system, having had some previous computer experience. He is excited about using the system.

"At this time, I have limited dexterity and can still use the mouse," he said. "When my eyesight gets worse, I can use letters on the big keyboard."

Palasz used to be involved professionally with technology, including fixing electric typewriters and copiers.

"I wanted to keep abreast of knowledge," Palasz said of his involvement in the class.

He was able to walk other clients through the system and was eager to do so.

"This is how I looked at it," Palasz said. "If I can do it, anybody can do it."

Equipment costly

The months of self-guided learning were rewarded Feb. 4, as happy graduates in blue mortar boards received diplomas.

Proud family members were on hand to provide support and congratulations.

"You are students of life," Sister Edna told the graduates.

For Sister Edna, the ceremony was doubly special. In addition to presiding, she had the joy of watching her mother, Lillian, receive a diploma. The 88-year-old Lillian also provided the "Pomp and Circumstance" for the day on the keyboard.

Trying the computer program changed Lillian's perspective.

"She's always been afraid of the computer," Sister Edna said. "Now she loves it."

The St. Ann program was created using equipment from a company that has a goal of helping senior citizens keep pace with changing technology.

Colorado-based It's Never 2 Late provided the equipment -- one computer each at St. Ann's main building and Shepherd House -- as its first out-of-state endeavor, said its president, Jack York, who was on hand for the graduation. Packages set up by the company typically cost $15,000 to $20,000, including 100 hours of training time.

While it may be possible to find modified mice or somewhat-adapted keyboards, it is not likely that individual clients would be able to have this type of package in their homes because of the cost, said Dawn Synowicz, program coordinator.

The oldest known user of computer setups by It's Never 2 Late is 110, York said. The company was created to meet a need.

"We found that people who needed the ability to communicate most were in nursing homes," York said. "We spent a couple of years working with the staff to provide adaptability to the system."

The project became a reality through a grant from Time Warner Cable, Pioneer Products of Racine and several private donors.

Jill Knight, program coordinator from the Department on Aging, attended the ceremony along with members of her family. Money had been donated in memory of her grandmother Evelyn Ricciardi, who had attended Shepherd House. Knight is encouraged by the program.

"It improves quality of life to be more connected and communicating," she said. "It's invaluable and wonderful."

Results felt immediately

Learning to use the equipment is made easier with games. The first challenge the individuals faced was using the mouse, Synowicz said. From there, they could get involved in their own e-mail account, word process, play cards or explore the Internet.

Individuals played solitaire to help them learn to drag and click with a mouse or to use the touch screen.

"Many people are unaware of the benefits that this type of program can offer," Sister Edna said.

Synowicz agreed that learning to use the computers enriches clients' lives in many ways.

"They are able to do what we do on an everyday basis," Synowicz said. "They can keep in touch with others out of state."

For their hard work, the graduates also earned certificates and the opportunity to move their tassels from one side of their graduation caps to the other.

The graduates' experiences with the computers did not end after the ceremony.

"They can still go on the computer when they have time to learn, or if there is something they are interested in," Synowicz said.

For some, the ability to use computers will help in an immediate way.

Priya George, 27, who needs speech therapy, uses a computer program to hear how words are supposed to sound, said her mother, Omana George.

At least one of the graduating class will be using what she learned to reach out to others by writing letters, and possibly getting a computer job. Rosalie Smith, 49, said she had a little keyboarding experience before, having used her sister's computer, but she wanted to learn more.

"It's easy," she said. "I learned right away. I now can keep in touch through e-mail with my sister in San Diego."

Most individuals had not had a chance to use a computer before.

"It's so exciting to see the joy on the face of someone who cannot talk or that has restricted physical movement. They can use these specialized computers to gain access to the Internet as well as e-mail. It can open up a world of possibility for those who feel alone and isolated."

Copyright © 2004, Cudahy-St. Francis Reminder-Enterprise