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Success With Assistance

January 31, 2010, 10:15 PM by Katie Janssen

Success With Assistance
Around 3,100 students in the Sioux Falls School District have some kind of disability, but thousands more may need help on a daily basis. The district offers what they call assistive technology; basically extra equipment that will help those children succeed.  For some students, it's changing their lives.

Kristen Barnhardt takes notes a bit differently than her eighth grade classmates. She has cerebral palsy, and can't write for long periods of time.

"My hand will start getting tight and my other hand does too. My hands will get red because I hold my pencil a different way," Barnhardt said.

This happened in the classroom for years, and each time left her frustrated and embarrassed.

"You don't want to have to raise your hand, interrupt the whole class, to go, can someone write this down for me?" said Barnhardt.

But now, that's all changed. With the help of a software program called Dragon, whatever Barnhardt says out loud ends up on her laptop. It's made a huge difference.

"I really want to be independent and go to college, and I don't want to have to rely on my mom or an aid to help me throughout the years. I want to be by myself living like a regular teenager or adult would," Barnhardt said.

Sixth grader Tom Olson feels the same way.

"I'm cortically vision-impaired. It just means I have trouble seeing far away stuff," Olson said.

He's had the condition since he was a baby, after doctors removed a tumor. Olson's always had assistive technology to help him in the classroom, but it was big and bulky. Now that he's in middle school, he needed something portable, so the school district found the Flipper. It takes what's too far away for him to see, and magnifies it on the computer screen.

"That way I know what's going on,” said Olson. “If I didn't see anything I'd just be asking, what's going on, what's going on?"

Olson and Barnhardt are two of thousands of students who use similar devices every day.

"We have students who might just need a pencil gripper or modification, they might just need a tool to write better, or word-prediction software," said Terri Noldner, the district's assistive technology coordinator.

Noldner says even the smallest adjustments can make a huge difference for students. Often it means success over failure.

"We've seen kids be able to go on to college and be successful that wouldn't have made it without the right tools,” Noldner said.

The assistive technology is also used for children with higher needs.

In this John Harris Elementary School classroom, students are dealing with severe disabilities, and most can't speak at all. Some use pictures and symbols to let the teacher know what they want... others can only use switches and buttons to communicate. But Noldner says these gadgets give the kids a voice that they wouldn't otherwise have.

"Sometimes the progress is slow and minimal and long-term; other times we see children blossom. If you find the right tool that opens that door to communication, we see amazing things happening," said Noldner.

Amazing things are already happening for Barnhardt and Olson. Both say before getting the tools they needed, their disabilities made them self-conscious to the point where neither one of them wanted to ask for help.

"I just felt kind of nervous,” Olson said. “I didn't think people would like me if I did that; they might think I'm kind of weird or whatever."

"You're 14 and everybody turns and looks at you. You just sort of curl up into a ball," said Barnhardt.

But now, they're going to class with confidence.

"So much faster, so much quicker, so much more effective in my life, making me more independent," said Barnhardt.

"Everybody's different in their own special way and that's what I am," Olson said.

The two have learned different doesn't mean bad. In fact, in their cases, it means "extraordinary.”

All that equipment isn't cheap. The Flipper Olson uses costs around $1,300. The school district buys the equipment as needed, so the budget for it varies from year to year.

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