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UCF Interns Help Teenagers with Disabilities Learn to Use Assistive Technologies

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By Kristie Smeltzer

Fourteen undergraduate speech-language pathology interns from the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders recently helped area young adults with disabilities learn to use assistive technology software and hardware to substantially improve their ability to communicate and perform academic tasks.

The interns worked with 11 young adults with disabilities and their parents who attended "Technology in the FAAST Lane," an innovative five-day camp in June run by the FAAST Atlantic Region Assistive Technology Demonstration Center, known as the ARDC, in cooperation with other community agencies. The camp, held primarily at the Assistive Technology Educational Network facility in Sanford, also included a curriculum-relevant field-trip to Walt Disney World's Epcot.

According to Matthew Press, an occupational therapist for the FAAST ARDC, the UCF interns underwent eight hours of rigorous training over two days to become proficient enough in the assistive software programs, such as Inspiration, Universal Reader and PixWriter, to help camp participants and their parents learn to use the software. This training was part of the students' service-learning activities in their augmentative and alternative communication class.

Of the intern experience, UCF undergraduate speech-language pathology student Mina Keramati said, "I have learned so much better with this hands-on experience than I have in any other class in this major so far. I had never worked so closely with a client that had AAC (augmentative and alternative communication) needs, and I feel I am much better prepared for clients I may see in the future. I have also learned so much about all the technology that is offered and the processes I will go through to get these AAC devices if needed."

The assistive programs and devices used during the camp can aid students with a number of disabilities. For example, Universal Reader allows users to highlight areas of text on the Web and have the words read aloud. This program aids those with special visual needs or who are auditory learners. Some camp participants received physical accommodations as well, with simple tools such as stickers on the keyboard keys with larger letters on them for a visually impaired participant or a keyboard with larger keys for a participant with special manual exterity needs. Some also learned to use augmentative and alternative communication devices, supported by camp interns and staff to understand the devices' real-world applications.

During the camp, participants used AT software and hardware to research a country of their choice via the Internet and during the Epcot field-trip. At the end of the camp, participants demonstrated their knowledge and skills by delivering public presentations on the country they researched and their experiences at the camp. Each participant received a refurbished desktop computer with the software programs used during the camp included. The cost of the program was $50 per student, and scholarships from sponsors were available for students in need of financial assistance.

ARDC Coordinator Jennifer Kent-Walsh said, "What makes this camp different is that we are teaching the participating teenagers and their parents to use assistive technologies to complete challenging and motivating educational activities, and then we send the families home with the computer and software they learned to use during camp. We want these kids to have access to the tools they need to be successful when completing homework, and it is exciting to have the undergraduate student interns play such a key role in this process. Service-learning activities like this help the students to realize that it is critical for them to work collaboratively with families to identify appropriate assistive technologies and challenging goals for all of their clients."

The Florida Alliance for Assistive Services and Technology provided funding to establish the ARDC in the UCF Communication Disorders Clinic in October 2005. The center provides services to clients with disabilities in nine Florida counties and unique field-experience opportunities to UCF interns, such as this camp.

The FAAST ARDC frequently collaborates with community agencies to provide services, and partners for "Technology in the FAAST Lane" included the Assistive Technology Educational Network, Center for Independent Living of Central Florida, Down Syndrome Association of Central Florida, IDEAS Special Needs Consults Inc., Kiwanis Club of Oviedo-Winter Springs and Walt Disney World.

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