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Where technology helps beat disability

If you want to explore the programs and products Bluegrass Technology Center offers, as I decided to do Monday, I suggest you ask Debbie Sharon to show you around when you have about an hour to kill.

The non-profit agency helps adapt everyday objects for people with disabilities.

The simple acts of playing with toys or reading a book can be impossible for the young patrons the center caters to.

Not only does the center lend various high- and low-tech devices that aid in muscle toning, eating, reading, talking, accessing a computer and maintaining a job, but the center also helps its patrons acquire the devices from other sources as cheaply as possible.

Sharon, the education director, is its only full-time employee.

"This is called a stander," she said, pointing to a vertical frame with padded cinches strategically attached, and a tray like those on high chairs.

"How do children in wheelchairs get taller?" she asked. "They need gravity."

The child stands in the frame while playing with toys or other objects on the tray.

"And this," she said pointing to an odd-looking table-top machine, "is an electronic feeder. You hit the switch with any body part and it will get food and bring it to your mouth."

The machine costs about $4,000, but the center rents it for a nominal fee to patrons who are interested in buying one. It's a try-before-you-buy program.

Another device, My Tobii, costing $18,000 is a self-contained computer that can attach to a wheelchair and be operated by the iris of an eye.

"We don't sell any equipment," Sharon said. "They can borrow or rent it for 30 days and give it a try. If it works out, then they can buy one of their own. If no one is on waiting list, they can borrow it longer."

The center will also provide support for the acquisition of funding or trouble-shooting problems. "We're not just going to dangle a carrot in front of you," she said. "That's not my job."

And then there is the room filled with toys that all children may enjoy but some don't have the motor skills to operate. Each toy has been adapted to operate with a switch plate that comes in a variety of sizes, shapes and sensitivity to touch.

All the toys in the Toy Library can be borrowed free of charge by parents, teachers, grandparents and day care workers.

"Play is a child's job," she said. "This is how they learn. Early intervention is cheaper, and it is the most effective way of doing things. These are off-the-shelf toys that we have adapted and re-wired with parts from Radio Shack."

The center's patrons, as Sharon calls them, have a variety of challenges. Some may be sight or hearing impaired, some may be physically or mentally disabled, some may have sought help after an accident, stroke or because of cerebral palsy or ALS.

"If they can move one-eighth of an inch ... such as a blink, we can adapt to their needs," she said.

The center, 961 Beasley Street, Suite 140, serves mostly Central Kentucky although some people have been served in Eastern Kentucky. It began 20 years ago and survives on grants and donations.

It provides communication devices for those having difficulty producing speech and it trains teachers, parents, and physical, speech and occupational therapists on supportive software. And that is just the Reader's Digest version of what all the center provides. I didn't mention the 200 reconditioned computers the center will soon be lending.

The center always needs empty ink cartridges, which provide the money to buy batteries for the toys, and any stray computer mice you may have.

But right now, Sharon especially needs volunteers to help with a special project.

Sharon needs people who can scan into a computer various children's books. Once in the computer, she needs someone to proofread the copy for errors which may occur in the computer's reading of the scanned material.

She also needs readers to record books for children who can't see or read. These books, amounting to about 1,000 or more when the project is completed before summer, will then be available for children with special needs.

Also, when the project is completed, I'm sure the tour will take longer than an hour.