Friday, December 22, 2006


TLWMSN will be on vacation until January 3, 2007! Have a safe and happy holiday! See you in 2007!

Website of the Day - Widgit Symbol Stories

Sometimes websites have so much on them we miss some of the resources. Widgit Software (UK), the producer and distributor of a variety of special needs software packages is one of those sites. Symbol World seems to be a resource most people know about, if you don't you should definitely check it out.

There is more to be discovered however, like the ten free symbol stories you can download (some fairy tales and some mythology), the fun activity packs and the cross curricular packs (most of which are free). Also there are a broad range of resources avaliable at the Symbol Inclusion Project.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


Yesterday this site was visited by someone from Dynavox! That is really exciting to me! Although the DV4 includes a few of my AAC pet peeves, I really love the Dynavox device we have in my classroom. So in honor of the visit from some random person who works at Dyanvox (I know they were here from my Stat Counter logs) this will be a review of the Dynavox MT4/DV4.

To preface my review I should mention the other dynamic display devices my students, past and present, have used that act as a comparison in my head. I have had students with the Freestyle, the Gemini, the Mercury and the MiniMerc from Assistive Technology, Inc., the ChatPC from Satillo, the Optimist 2 from Zygo, and the E-Talk from Great Talking Box. Before there were dynamic display devices I worked with students who ran Speaking Dynamically (not Pro, just Speaking Dynamically) on old school laptops mounted to their wheelchairs and before that I worked with a Light Talker, a Macaw by Zygo and many, many communication books and boards made by photocopying symbols from a book, cutting them up, coloring them, gluing them to pages and laminating them.

Back to the Dynavox DV4/MT4, I have had a DV4 in the classroom for almost a year. A first I was worried about the speech therapist choosing a device I didn't have experience with (especially since the last device, the Optimist II had been and continues to be a disaster for us), but a few demonstrations from the local vendor and I was on board.

When the device arrived it was tricky to learn a whole new system of programming. While some features are similar to Speaking Dynamically Pro and the platform the ChatPC uses, many are not. Furthermore much of the more "advanced" programming I wanted to do was not in the manual and directions can only be found on the website.

Once it was up and running, however, I grew to love the DV4 as did my student. I think her favorite feature is using it to play MP3s, she has a friend in the class who loves music and will (verbally) request songs, she loves to be the DJ. She also takes great delight in using it in the community to order at coffee shops.

My favorite features of the DV4 are:
  1. now that I know what I am doing I can make new pages in minutes
  2. being able to make pages in minutes means I can program a month worth of academic pages, based on my lesson plans for the next thematic unit, in an afternoon or two
  3. the battery lasts the entire school day 99% of the time
  4. it plays MP3s, which makes my student happy - if she's happy I'm happy
  5. the untapped potential for environmental controls that my student will be able to take advantage of once we figure them out
  6. the online resources are rich and online courses can be used for my professional development
  7. the fact that everything saves automatically as you program
  8. the included carrying case is safe, well padded and easy to carry
  9. the glare isn't as bad as some other devices
  10. the fact that you can combine cells to make bigger buttons with in a page if you need to
  11. the pre-programmed pages are not difficult to figure out and are a nice guide
  12. the feature that automatically adds personal information to pre-programmed pages makes the initial use of the device easier
  13. in the nine months or so we have had it we have not needed to get it repaired, knock on wood, that is a record compared to the Optimist and the ChatPCs
  14. the volume can be adjusted to make it loud enough to be heard in the cafeteria or community and quiet enough to use in the public library
Here are a few things I don't like:
  1. the constant need to do a soft reset during programming
  2. the lousy mount that has to be held in place by, I kid you not, a pink shoelace I tore out of the package during a community based instruction trip when the mount kept dropping the device to the floor *this is not the DV4 or Dynavox's fault, this is the fault of the cruddy mount company*
  3. the manual doesn't have anything more than the absolute basics
  4. the lack of vendor support (this may be unique to our situation, the person for our area was replaced right after we received the device and we can't seem to get his replacement to show up)
  5. the key guard is poorly designed (as in my students fingers are constantly getting caught in it and I had to add velcro to it because it kept falling off
  6. the volume in controlled inside the communication pages or control panels - no external knob or lever for quick fixes that are so often needed (that is the only feature I like about the Optimist II)
  7. the rental price is outrageous
It should be noted that 2 of my complaints have nothing to do with the device or the company itself and one (the key guard) won't apply to many people.

The benefits of the Dynavox Dv4/MT4 are multiple and the complaints pale in comparison. I have recommended this device to other teachers in my school and now there are quite a few students with them in our community. The next time we are in the selection process for a dynamic display device I will definitely by pushing for a Dv4/MT4 if it is right for the student.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Wheelchair Manners

Witnessing a local man who uses a wheelchair getting patted on the head at the laundromat today made me think about the sign I made of "Wheelchair Manners" that hangs outside my classroom. I am going to post it here in case anyone else wants to make it into a sign.

(Just select the text below, copy it -control/C- and paste it -control/V- into a Microsoft Word, Open Office, or similar document)

Wheelchair Manners

· Use the same manners you would with anyone else,

o Rude is rude.

· Ask before you help,

o Sometimes independence is more important than ease or speed.

· Please don’t lean or hang on the wheelchair without permission,

o How would you like it if someone hung on you?

· Speak to the person in the wheelchair

o Not to the person with him or her.

· Make yourself eye to eye,

o You may want to sit or kneel.

· Shake hands, give a squeeze on the shoulder,

o But never a pat on the head.

· A person who uses a wheelchair is a wheelchair user,

o Not “confined to a wheelchair” or a “victim of a wheelchair”.

· Always ask before moving someone’s wheelchair,

o Whether or not he or she is in it.

· Be aware of the person's capabilities,

o Some users can walk with aid and use wheelchairs to save energy and move quickly.

· It is ok to use terms like "gotta run" and “went for a walk” when speaking to a person who uses a wheelchair,

o The wheelchair user probably uses the same words.

· It is okay to ask polite questions,

o Much more okay than staring.

· A wheelchair gives mobility and freedom,

o It is not, in and of it self, sad or a tragedy.

Website of the Day - Brainpop Jr.

Brainpop Jr. lists itself as online animated educational movies for grades K-3, but really is a lot more. Falling into six categories (science, social studies, writing, math, health and reading) each lesson has one or more videos, games, a comic strip called "belly up", an interactive word wall, two level of quizzes and talk, write, draw and read about it sections for extension activities. All of this in addition to teacher guides and ideas for classroom activities. The videos are even close captioned if you chose. The site is touch screen accessible to a degree (excluding the write about it section unless you use your own onscreen keyboard), but is not switch accessible. The content is relatively age appropriate even for older developmentally delayed students - there are no cutesy elements or babyish images. Brainpop Jr. is constantly adding new content, so sign up for the e-mails that tell you what has been added.

There is, of course, a Brainpop Sr., but it is $175 for a single teacher for a school year (as opposed to Jr. being free - at least for now).

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Websites of the Day - Winter Holiday Ideas

It's tough to be any kind of teacher the week before December break. In special needs rooms chances are your attendance will spotty, no one will be able to focus (staff or kids) and some kind of party is in order (unless your school forbids it). Here are some websites with crafts, activities or other ideas for this week.

Class-Parties.Com lists party decorations, craft, activities and recipes.

DLTK has crafts, activity ideas and printables.

Enchanted Learning
has more of the same as does Easy Child Crafts.

If you are looking for some free music for your parties or activities try I Love Wavs, for Christmas, Hanukkah and New Years music, not to mention a nice selection of pre-school/elementary music.

Finally there is and their subsidiary which have coloring sheets, crafts, activities, poems and songs. Although this is a much more ad heavy site than I normally would post, I am pointing it out because of a favor they are asking of their visitors. They are asking visitors to vote for Jenny W in the Worst Holiday Gift Contest, with the prize money to be split between two of the board member who have been diagnosed with cancer (breast and ovarian).

More About Imagetalk

When writing up Imagetalk for the last post I discovered they have a couple of free downloads and began playing around with them. The first is the Imagetalk Book Editor Feature. Book Editor allows you to make communication books to be sent wirelessly to the Imagetalk device of your choice. Soon, however, it will allow you to print the books, which would make paper communication boards. Book Editor allows you to download five symbols sets (Imagetalk, PCS, Pictograms, Bliss Symbolics and a set for the Butterfly Environmental Control Feature. Once you understand the basics, which I "got" in about twenty minutes but playing around and using the help features, but could also be learned from the PDF Manual, you can make a board/book in about five minutes. The system is intuitive using drag and drop, which makes so much more sense then the switching from the board to the symbol finder like you do in Boardmaker. However, there are only a few page set up features and your symbols will end up in a grid of your choosing. Thus the simplicity and ease of Book Editor limits your flexiblity considerably in board design compared to Boardmaker. Book Editor runs on the Java Platform, which means you will need Java Runtime Environment (which you probably already have). The program runs "online" meaning once you register and have a password you can share books with other users with ease. Book Editor runs on Mac or Windows.

You can also download from Imagetalk the full Imagetalk for Desktop/Tablet for free to try. It is a pretty cool program. Much more intuitive than Speaking Dynamically, the Dynavox Software or Satillo's ChatPC software (those are the ones I happen to know well). Again, you lose quite a bit of flexibility and extended features for the sake of ease and intuitiveness, but for many users that's fine. The program will uses a lot of your memory. If you can I would download and run it from a flash drive or external hard drive. I had some trouble making it talk and had to fiddle around and re-download to make it work - I still don't know exactly how I fixed it. The speech is supported by the Acapela Software, which I think was what the problem was, but I am not sure.

AAC Devices from Overseas

Today on TLWMSN we feature two AAC companies from overseas who carry products we generally don't see in the USA. The first company is Smartbox, of the UK. They carry four unique dynamic display devices (at least I think they are unique) and one Zygo device, the Talara. The Powerbox and Slimbook devices are very high tech AAC and computer system with environmental controls, the Powerbox is designed for wheelchair mounting and the Slimbook for ambulatory individuals. The Future Pad (pictured left) is for wheelchair or ambulatory use and does not have environmental controls, although they can be added. Finally, there is the Casio Handheld which is a palm pilot sized device which runs the Pocket Grid Software. The dynamic display devices utilize either The Grid for symbol communication or the Windbag for text communication, which are both produced by Sensory Software International. The Grid uses the Widgit Company Rebus Communication Symbols.

Next we have the Imagetalk Symbol Writer by Imagetalk, a subsidiary of a Finnish Company called Lingsoft, Inc. Imagetalk is a rather unusual communication software system which avoids grids, focuses on visual appeal and displays functions and content on the same page, but clearly divided. Another creative feature is that it can be installed on anything from PDAs and smartphones to tablets, laptops and desktops. Installing the system on a smartphone or other wireless communication device, like the Nokia pictured above, allows it to be used for in-person communication, but also for e-mail and cellphone calls without special equipment. Well worth the watch is Imagetalk's Animated Online Commercial (notice the stickers on the guitar South Park and Springfield {as in the Simpsons}). Imagetalk uses their own symbol library or a choice between Mayer-Johnson PCS, Pictographs or Bliss Symbolics.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Picture Communication Symbol Sets Update

I missed a few picture communication symbol sets when I posted on November 24th .

First up is Libsyms from the Liberator Company in England. There are 30,000 Libsyms (far more than the approximately 10,000 Mayer-Johnson PCS. This may be do to separate symbols that add suffixes like "ly", "ed", "s", "er" and "est" to the main symbol for any concept. Libsyms also promises that as upgrades are added they will be free to those who own the system. Liberator seems to have made efforts to make their symbols multi-cultural and aligned to the UK's national curriculum. They even include expletives. The cost is 250 pounds which is about $488.

In order to balance that price I will present a totally free program next. Sclera Pictos is a set of picture communication symbols for the visually impaired created in the Netherlands. The website is in Dutch and in English. There are over 1,000 symbols on the site, which can be downloaded, about 400 symbols are available translated into English. This download was a lot easier on my computer than the download of the Imagine Symbols.

The Royalty Free Clip Art for Foreign Language Instruction is another resource for black and white images. These free images are cartoonish line drawings which can be browsed online and downloaded individually.

The Open Clip Art Library holds thousands of vector drawn clipart images that double nicely as picture symbols. You can browse the library online or download all or some of it. The images are, for the most part, very clear and would fit nicely on communication boards or curriculum items. Some of the images are color and some are black and white.

And, of course, there is always Google Images.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Web Site of the Day - Tux Paint

Tux Paint is a free, open source, award-winning software program for children. It is a paint/draw program similar to Kid Pix, but with a more user friendly interface. Tools includes brushes, lines, shapes, text, sound effects, "magic" effects and teacher controls. It will print and save creations. Tux Paint runs on Mac OS X, Windows and Linux. Tux4Kids is a support forum, should you need it (which is unlikely).

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Website of the Day - Dog Play

When I first started teaching the hospital/school I worked in was partnered with an animal assisted therapy program. My classroom was visited weekly by a beautiful dog named Sallie and her owner. My students loved those visits. They would work harder at physical skills like reaching and grasping to groom Sallie and would use their communication devices to give Sallie commands with less latency and more focus than on most other tasks.

Pet assisted therapy may be, along with music and other expressive therapies, one of the most under-utilized means of improving outcomes and quality of life for learners with multiple special needs. This is sad because many animal assisted therapy program are run on a completely volunteer, free-of-charge basis.

Dog Play is a website which presents a broad range of information about animal assisted therapy. The best part is they link to national and local animal assisted therapy agencies.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Website of the Day - CBeebies Switch Games

The Inclusive Technology Company and the Children's BBC in the UK have teamed up to create online switch games for the pre-school set. Although the PBS in the USA have not caught up with this advance they do have a great resource page for parents of special needs children which focuses on technology and inclusion called Inclusive Communities.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006


Do It Yourself (DIY) is a hot trend right now. Books, magazines and television shows are devoted to the topic. Here are some website that give helpful instructions for DIY projects for the special needs classroom.

Science Shareware has information on adapting toys. They also give the useful suggestion of enlisting scout troops to adapt toys.

One Switch, a long time favorite site of mine has directions for eleven DIY equipment modifications and more for adapting video games. Be sure to explore the rest of the site too, it's great.

Assistive Technology Partners has ten DIY project tutorials online.

Dale's Classroom Adaption does not have instructions, but the pictures are well worth perusing.

Do2Learn has DIY instruction to make a study tent.

The PVC Book is available in a PDF file and offers useful instruction to make all sorts of adapted equipment.

Braingle teaches us how to make stress balls.

Finally, intended for community based rehabilitation in the third world there is the United Nation Guide to Assistive Devices. Although you probably don't need directions to make a wheelchair or crutches, some of the ideas are useful and reading the document is mind opening. The article made me think more about people with disabilities in developing nations and what I can do to help.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Special Needs Telephones

Many of our students have IEP goals to use a telephone, but face practical issues in accessing the phone itself. Here are some links to a variety of phones designed for those with special needs

The phone to the left is one of two cell phones being offered with switch access. The first is the ClickToGo by Quintet and the second is the NoHandsCom by ETO Engineering. There is also a cellphone accessibility computer program that can make cell phones easier to use for those with disabilities. Another product, Dock and Talk lets you use any regular phone as your cellphone, but it is a bit bulky and designed for at-home use.

Jitterbug makes a large button cell phone and Easy 5 is a phone that has only six buttons allowing the user to dial any of five pre-programmed numbers, Easy 5 is now only available overseas, but should be arriving here soon.

Available now is the simplified Firefly and the LG Migo phone for children, the LG Migo may be a better choice because it is more age appropriate looking (left). Similar to the Migo is the Wherify, which has built in GPS tracking. All three of these phones allows only calls to pre-programmed numbers on the phone.

In the realm of traditional analogue phones we have more choices for those with disabilities. A couple of phones are available that allow the user to dial by photograph, including the Ameriphone P-300 and P-400.

The Ameriphone ER Phone is a picture dial phone as well as an emergency phone with a body worn remote control that dials pre-programmed emergency numbers if pressed. Clear Sounds makes a similar product without the picture dialing, but with a large keypad.

Ameriphone also makes switch operated, large button and amplified phones. Another switch operated phone available is from Tash used infrared to control a telephone and more. Voice activated phones are another option, such as this one by Ablephone.

For students with hearing impairments you made need to consider amplified phones or TTY. Students who are blind or visually impaired may benefit from large button or braille phones. A new braille text messenger from Samsung has just won the 2006 IDEA prize.

Occupational Therapy Now has an article on choosing accessible phones. Now matter what you chose, you will want to shop around for the best prices.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Keyboard Bangers

"Keyboard Bangers" is a category of software designed for infants and toddlers who bang on the keyboard while sitting on mom or dad's lap. Keyboard Bangers have some interesting applications in the intensive special needs room as well. Used with a switch, touchscreen, alternative keyboard or a regular keyboard Keyboard Bangers are an excellent cause and effect teaching tools. Some versions of the software have letters pressed create and image and sound effect that match that sound. I once had a student so enthralled with the sound effects from a keyboard banger that I would record the sounds onto a Big Mac switch so he could play them on the bus or at home when he was upset. Many Keyboard Banger games are available for free download. Here is a listing of a few.



Sarah's Mostly Harmless Keybangers

Baby Banger (scroll down a bit)


Larry's Animals and Things (scroll down a little)

Baby One

Toddler Keys

Baby Keys

and here is a program available for Palm OS - Baby Blink.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Free Single Switch Media Player

This is cool! It is a free single switch accessible media player! Now your students can DJ music from the computer! It should run on most systems except Mac/Linux and you will need Windows Media Player 9 or better.

AAC Device Pet Peeves

In the past three years I have worked with at least five different high tech dynamic display AAC devices. All of the devices I reference below were purchased in the past three or so years (the speech therapist on my team is very over worked). Here are some of my pet peeves of working with the devices:

  1. some very recently purchased devices use obsolete or inadequate operating systems - i.e. Windows 98
  2. frequent need to reboot, soft reset or other method of restarting the system, especially when programming - wasting valuable time
  3. some are very difficult to back up to a secondary location, leading to a possible loss of hours of work
  4. incomplete symbol systems without an easy means for the user or programmer to extend or add to the symbol set
  5. broken promises from device vendors regarding training and support
  6. a few devices have low parent/para friendliness factor - programmer tends to need high level of training
  7. repairs are expensive - shipping alone can blow your budget
  8. repairs take too long leaving the user with no means of communication
  9. repairs are needed FAR too frequently
  10. difficult to block users from programming controls (we've resorted to pad locks on the cases of some devices and we still haven't totally stopped the problems)
  11. glare problems
  12. poorly designed wheelchair mounting systems causing very expensive devices to fall over or off the mount - the best wheelchair mount in my classroom is made from spare parts I scraped together
  13. carrying case is not included, leaving us to improvise with egg crate foam pads and donated tote bags
  14. short battery life - some can't even make it a full school day
  15. irreplaceable parts lead to some devices being junked (and users being without devices) long before the five year insurance limit for new devices is up

Site of the Day -JTalk/This Way of Life

Jtalk is another piece of free AAC software, I haven't tried it, but maybe at somepoint I will download it and Pvoice, the only two free systems of AAC software I know about. Quite unfortunately there are not any pictures of Jtalk to share.

Jtalk or rather This Way of Life the website of Jtalk's designer is not site of the day because of the software (in spite of my life for both all things AAC and all things freeware/opensource) it was chosen because of a list of the Top Ten Most Wanted AAC Features.

The Top Ten list is supposed to be for AAC designers, producers and vendors. It would also serve as a great checklist during the evaluation and trial period of acquiring a device for a student. The top five items, durable, reliable, portable, and long battery life are defiantly questions I always ask. Further down on the list are some ideas I have rarely seen on AAC devices, but would love to see in the future. This list might help with that final decision when it is down to two or three very similar devices.

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Switch Idea of the Day

I have never seen or thought of this before, but this child appears to be blowing up a balloon using a single switch (a big red) and an environmental control unit like a Powerlink. I found this picture during a Google images search. The website is in Japanese, but sometimes a picture is worth a thousands words!

On second thought maybe he is doing something else entirely and the balloon is just there. Either way, barring any latex allergies or pica problems, every kid should get a chance to blow up balloons until they pop.

Monday, December 4, 2006

Dealing with Difficult Parents

I have been hired to run a few professional development workshops for a neighboring school district, one of them on "Dealing with Difficult Parents". I thought it might be nice if I shared some of the preliminary web links I came up with as I research the topic and plan my workshop here:

Preventing and Resolving Parent-Teacher Differences (this one has references!)
Today's School: Dealing with Difficult Parents (wordy, but good)
Education World: Dealing with Difficult Parents (a bit of a book commercial, but some worthy advice)
Getting Along with the Grown-Ups (more for general ed.)
Seven Types of Difficult People (not actually for schools, but worth it)

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Site of the Day - Crayola for Educators

Let's here is for the Crayola website! They offer printable coloring pages and worksheets, craft ideas, e-cards and printable cards. They also offer lesson plans for educators and present dozens of lesson plans for special needs. (By choosing special needs under "grade".) Much of there materials are also available grouped by thematic unit. Much appreciated is there effort towards multiculturalism. Oh, and watch out for the occasional free offer of art materials for teachers!

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Medicaid Survey

The Arc is calling for individuals with intellectual disabilities, their caregivers, advocates and professionals who work with them to take a survey about Medicaid Part D. The goal is to find out what the flaws are and how to remedy them. Go to the Arc Action Page for more information.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Community Based Instruction

Community Based Instruction (CBI) is an integral part of the functional curriculum for students with multiple disabilities with a variety of benefits. Whether our students are working on reach and grasp, basic communication, self-advocacy or money skills a carefully planned and implemented CBI program can provided a unique and important environment for the teaching or carrying-over of new skills.

Our students tend to learn best in naturalistic environments and generalize poorly from simulations to "real-life" settings, thus learning skills where they will be used is ideal. What good is identifying a stop sign on a flash card if you can't do it on the street? Additionally, some skills, such as providing personal information, will be used repeatedly in the community (i.e. to get a library card, at the pharmacy, in some purchasing situations) and rarely in the self-contained or resource classroom.

CBI is by far the easiest to implement in urban settings where the grocery store, post office, library and other resources are just a few blocks away. Harder is CBI in the suburban and rural setting when transportation becomes a huge problem and enormous expense. When this is the case the teacher and the classroom team may need to "sell" the idea of CBI to administrators in order to get the program off the ground.

Once the program is in place, the benefits will become clear quickly and there will be a plethora teachable moments. These teachable moments may include the concepts of ownership (also called "shop lifting") which, I promise, will be funny in retrospect. Where my school is many stores have "self-check out" aisles and I was amazed when, by the end of the second year of CBI instruction, three of my students were able to complete the self-checkout process with only distant supervision.

A surprising benefit, overtime, will be the response of the community to the presence of your students. I recently ran into a local supermarket, without my students, and was greeted by many store employees with well wishes for my students. In our case, five years after opening our CBI program, we were able to open a community based job training program. CBI can sow seeds of welcoming for people with disabilities in the community.

Of course, like any thing else, there will be problems. Some things to consider will be teaching the teaching assistant how to implement CBI goals and benchmarks, deciding how to assist students who never bring in spending money when all the others do and how to handle the out-of-pocket expenses that come up associated with CBI, creating procedures for behavioral and medical events in the community and limiting liability. Some school districts and agencies have their guidelines online and these may be a good starting point.

Once you are out the door you will want to bring a first aid/medical kit with you, an emergency phone list, a cell phone or two, all the permission slips and anything else your learners will need. Then in the midst of all that learning out there, don't forget to have fun!

Monday, November 27, 2006

Idea of the Day - My Room's Version of the Yankee Swap

I'm going to assume you all know what a Yankee Swap is, although I know in some parts of the the USA it is called other things like a White Elephant Exchange.

A little more than five years ago I found myself teaching the largest self contained multiple special needs class I have ever seen. A dozen students, four teaching assistants, a nurse, a speech therapist, an OT , a PT and myself. In the past I had always given a little token of my appreciation to everyone in December, but that year eight adults were beyond my financial means, and a secret Santa type arrangement doesn't work well with everyone in one room, so we invented our own version of a swap.

All of the staff who wanted to participate brought in an unmarked gift worth $10.00 or less (unlike a white elephant these gifts are not generally re-gifts or gag gifts, but that could be fun too). Then the names of the staff were put into a hat and the students each drew the name of the adult they would be an elf for (can you see the embedded reach, grasp and literacy skills?). After every adult had an elf (or sometimes two) each elf would pick out a gift, one by one, for the staff member her or she had picked.

This lead to a lot of fun for the students when adults would say things like, "I don't want the book, don't pick the red one that looks like a book!" and the student would pick the red one that looked like a book smirking the whole time. There is no chance to swap out of what you pick in our version of the game, what the student-elf picks is what you get! The elf would then unwrap or assist in unwrapping the gift for the staff member.

The students love this activity! The chance to have that kind of control over what a staff member gets for a gift is fun for every kind of student, from the prankster to the kind-hearted.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Orthoses, Braces and Splints

Eventually, if not from the first day of your special education career, you will come in contact with braces, splints and orthoses. You will be expected to apply and remove them, monitor skin integrity and teach others to do all of these things. I have worked with some great OTs and PTs over the years who have given me excellent information. Early in my career I also worked with OTs and PTs who gave me little or erroneous information. Here is some of the best information I have received.

Leg braces or AFOs (Ankle Foot Orthoses) are worn by many students with cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and other low incidence motor disabilities. AFOs and most custom orthoses are ordered by a physician and made by an orthotist. The body part, in this case the lower leg, is casted and a model is made of it. Then the orthotist builds a brace out of a special plastic. AFOs are made only for the child the prescription was written for and are not intended for use by anyone else. AFOs and other prescription orthoses are designed to be worn over a thin layer of clothing without any wrinkles in the fabric. Care should be taken to put AFOs on the correct feet, marking the AFO may help speed up this process.

When putting an AFO on a student the student should be seated or lying on his or her back. The sock should be pulled all the way up and be smooth. After placing the child's leg into the AFO make sure the heel is all the way back; you can do this by lifting the toes to and visually checking heel placement. Once the heel is back secure the velcro across the instep (if there is one) followed by the top strap and the toe strap (if there is one). Pull the sock down a bit by the toe to ensure their are no wrinkles. KAFOs are similarly put on, only the part that attaches to the thigh and the connected AFO should be put on at the same time. For both AFOs and KAFOs children generally wear sneakers one size larger than usual with the insole removed. There are also special AFO shoes available.

A new kind of AFO has been developed out of England. It is called the SAFO for Silicon AFO. It is lightweight and flexible. Those who wear it claim it is much more comfortable and cuts down on fatigue. It is very expensive, about $3,000, and is not covered by American insurance companies. Thus I wouldn't expect to see one in a classroom near you soon, but good to know about none-the-less.

Back braces also know as body jackets and TLSOs (Thoraco-Lumbar Sacral Orthosis) are worn to treat or prevent scoliosis (curvature of the spine), to immobilize after spinal surgery or to support week trunk muscles. There are two primary types of body jackets you will see in the SpEd classroom. The first is the bivalve body jacket, which has a back and front and velcro down each side. The second is the overlap body jacket which generally opens in the front, with two or three strap of velcro across the front. You can find directions to apply a body jack by clicking on the type of body jacket above. My biggest tips are NOT to use the g-tube cut out as a guide for body jacket placement and to make sure the body jacket is on right side up, marking "top" and "bottom" inside the body jacket may help with this. Body jackets, like AFOs and KAFOs are meant to be worn over a thin layer of clothing, like a tight fitting undershirt. There are special "body socks" designed for wear under a body jacket, but insurance companies generally only pay for one or two a year.

Hand splints are more variable than leg braces. Although some are doctor ordered and made by and orthotist, others may be made by your classroom OT, still others may be purchased pre-made. Some hand splints are designed for preventing contractures, others to aid in functional tasks and others to provide comfort and support.

Skin care is of utmost important in the cast of any brace, splint or orthosis. When first worn the orthotist or therapist will generally recommend a 30 minutes on/30 minutes off schedule, checking the skin before and after for any redness. Gradually the time on will increase as tolerated. Redness lasting longer than twenty to thirty minutes usually means the brace must be adjusted. Many orthotists recommend rubbing the skin under the brace with alcohol several times a day to toughen the skin and discourage use of lotions which soften the skin.

I have had student who love their braces, splints or orthoses and I have had students who have tried to hide, destroy or throw away their devices. One of my students will complain of her body jacket being uncomfortable, but will want it adjusted, not removed, because she likes wearing it. Another of my students glares at the person who puts his body jacket on and will even make gagging noises when he first has it on in order to get it taken off (telling him to knock it off works just as well as removing the body jacket).

P.S. With thanks to a commenter (the first on this new blog of mine) I want to note that I just learned something. An orthosis (plural orthoses) is the actual custom brace. Orthotics is the science of making orthoses. I thought that "orthotic" was what you called the brace. You learn something new everyday! My commenter sent me to this glossary to clear things up.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Choices of Picture Symbol Sets

Many of us in the USA use the Mayer-Johnson Picture Communication Symbols (PCS) for visual communication in our classrooms. Mayer-Johnson PCS offers us 9,100 clear images for about $500.00 which includes all symbol addendums. Boardmaker also seems to be the best software available for intergrating symbols into documents and communication boards. A key feature of Boardmaker is its multilingual uses.

DynaSyms, originally designed for use on Dynavox Devices, are now available only on Dynavox products or as an addendum to Boardmaker. Many other symbol sets even recommend Boardmaker for using their symbols. However, there are other symbol systems to consider.

Similar to PCS is the Widgit Rebus Symbols, which became known to many of us in the SpEd field in the US with the software Writing with Symbols. There are currently 26,000 Widgit Symbols with more on the way.

Gus Communications has also designed a product to compete with Boardmaker called Overboard. It has only about 5,500 symbols, integrated speech and includes a free Boardmaker converter download. Overboard runs about $200.00. A number of other companies also have similar programs, but they have less than 1,000 symbols or are of the poorest quality so I won't mention them here.

Picture Master Board Designer is another Boardmaker competitor, however it only has 18,000 symbols, many of which are duplicates in their efforts to offer differing levels of complexity in their images. IMHO, the Picture Master Symbols are generally of poor quality for use in special needs classrooms. The Board Designer software is currently "on special" for $200.00.

Silver Lining Media offers "Picture This" communication board software that utilizes 5,000 photographs. Thousands more photos and symbols are available in add on sets. This product was designed to compete with Boardmaker, but is also compatible with Boardmaker and costs about $90.00. Kid Access offers a set of 1,000 symbols called "Eye-cons" also for $90.00. Kid Access claims the "Eye-cons" are more abstract than photos and more concrete than PCS, but the samples I saw were much less concrete than PCS and of poorer quality.

A number of international companies have the hold on the picture symbol market in their country. Makaton is a British symbol set, like PCS, that is very broadly used in the UK and other countries. They have 7,500 symbols available with 1,900 new symbols scheduled for release in 2007. It is difficult to gauge the price given how the symbols are bundled and sold. My guess is that it would cost at least $300.00 to acquire most of their symbols. Compic is a set of about 1,500 pictograph symbols mainly used in Australia, it runs about $350.00. Pictogram Ideogram Communication Symbols are mainly used in Canada, there are about 900 white on block pictograms available on a CD-ROM from the Zygo Company.

Bliss Symbolics is a very old, but now out of vogue symbol system for communication. The 3,000 Bliss symbols are very opaque and difficult to learn, but they do allow a use of grammar and tense that is not available in other systems. This use of grammar and tense is said to make learning literacy easier.

A few places even have free symbol sets! Imagine Symbols which offers 4,000 symbols consisting of clearly drawn images. Children with Special Needs has free downloads of picture and photo symbols as well as a few other resources. Do2Learn has hundreds of age appropriate looking black and white line drawings appropriate for schools available for free download. The AMDI company offers Tech/Syms free of charge if you register. I think there symbols are a bit young and look a tad like Manga. Other websites offer curriculum specific symbols/icons such as these for science.

A final symbol system I should mention is Minspeak. Minspeak is a system that uses combinations of icons to create new words or phrases. For example, "rainbow" + "heart" means "red". The system of Minspeak is complex and not for those with significant or even moderate cognitive disabilities, but for those with multiple physical issues and minimal cognitive issues this is the absolute fastest AAC system I can think of. Minspeak is offered on Prentke Romich Products where it is called Unity. It is also offered on the ChatBox by Saltillo where it is called Talk Today. More information is available from Novita Tech.

Web Site of the Day - The Learning Centre of SET BC

The website of the day is the Learning Centre of SET BC. The site contains resources in six areas: Vision, Access, Communication, General Topics, Main Library, and the Conference Center. The first fours areas are divided into two sections: the classroom with web broadcasts (audio and video), lectures/presentations, demonstrations and texts and the library with AT Guides and tutorials, best practice information and student lesson ideas. This website is a great resource for information about assessment, software, instruction and best practice.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Device of the Day - iZ The Music Maker

I'll admit that I haven't tried this out yet, but the moment I saw it in the new Enabling Devices catalog I wanted one... um... for the students.

iZ is described by Enabling Devices as the "First ever animatronic DJ! We have adapted the ultimate fusion of music and toy with a personality that you have never seen before. iZ can make music come to life. He has hundreds of music combinations. His big eyes dance wildly to the music while his nose pulses in rainbow colors to the beat. Play your iPod or other music player thru iZ. Cable is included. We have not begun to describe all of the possibilities. You will love it."

My understanding of iZ is that without an iPod or MP3 Player he makes music and dances by pressing the buttons on the base of the device, but if you do plug in your iPod he puts the iDog to shame!

Maybe Someday

Mitsubishi industries has invented a little, yellow, different robot to be a companion and assistant to the elderly and those with disabilities. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before our students come to school with their own assistive robots! Oh, her name is Wakamaru.

If Wakamaru is not available your student may still get to play with a robot at school. Cosmobot is a specially designed play therapy robot for children with disabilities. Cosmobot was designed by AT KidSystems and AnthroTronix for use with children ages 5-12 with a variety of disabilities. Cosmobot does not appear on the AT KidSystems website, but he does appear on the AnthroTronix site.

All of this seems to be part of a new field called Telerehabilitation.

Free Software for Learners with Intensive Special Needs

So you're a teacher on a budget. You serve learners with diverse needs and you wish you had more time to search out free software or to design your own. Here are some leads to free downloads for students with severe, multiple, complex or profound needs.

Pvoice is a free augmentative and alternative communication program. Designed by the father of a little girl with multiple needs it is free to download and run. It is considered open source software and those who know how to program in Perl are welcome to contribute to it.

A couple of places have free downloads for use with switches. The RJCooper company has two switch accessible arcade style game available for free download. Inclusive Technology in the UK also has some switch programs for free download. Another free switch program is The Great Fish Race which allows two switch users to compete. One Switch in the UK has more than 70 games for download for single switch use. Many are quite difficult so try them before you let your students at 'em.

Some touchscreen activities can be found online or for download as well. The Jackson Pollack painting site is made to emulate action painting and works beautifully with a touchscreen. Magic Touch has links to dozens of free or free demo games that work with touchscreens. I haven't tried this one yet, but e-home games has a download of classic arcade games for touchscreens.

Sarah Greenland has three games for download: a kaleidescope for switches, a mouse trainer and a touchscreen maze. SEN Teacher (SEN=Special Education Needs) has two dozen programs free for download. (Plus printables and more.) Many of the programs on SEN Teacher are switch, touchscreen or even camera accessible. Of particular interest may be SEN Switcher, free cause and effect, switch or touchwindow accessible programs available on line or for download.

Two British schools have some of the most amazing resources I've ever seen. Priory Woods has switch activated flash videos, talking story books and learning software. I use this website constantly. I would love to go spend a year at Priory Woods and learn all they have to offer. You should also check out their Kids Only Portal. The other school is Kingsbury School, much of the software there is available for use online.

Another unbelievable freebie is Click'n'Type, an onscreen keyboard that works via touchscreen, mouse and even single switch! This program even has word prediction. Considering what you pay for other programs like this Click'n'Type is a good way to do before you ask your school or agency to spend money on a similar program.

Another utility that is available is Philip's Large Colored Cursors.

If you are feeling motivated you can peruse the OATS Repository of open source assistive technology for more downloads.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Holidays are Upon Us!

One of the things that I try to do every year in my classroom around this time is prepare and send home a holiday gift giving guide for my students. For years parents told me how tired they were of their sons and daughters receiving gifts that were not appropriate. Sometimes the problem was the gifts could not be used by the child, other times it was that the toys was not age appropriate and still other times it was just that the child received all clothes and nothing "fun".

So I peruse the special needs catalogs and create a guide parents can share with friends and relatives. I copy and paste images of items and include websites and prices. Sometimes I divide up the ideas by age other times by types of abilities/disabilities and still other times by IEP goal areas. It all depends on the make up of my class that year.

I always include basic switches, talking watches and alarm clocks and medical identification jewelry. Many years I include adapted clothing, computer programs, adapted toys and games and recommended literature.

The parents seem to appreciate the effort and the students come back in January with fun things to show off.

Alternate Format Books and Stories

Here is a collection of links to adapted and alternative format books. Most are free, some have a fee. The type of format varies. For pay interactive books like Tumblebooks and Bookflix and professionally read audio book downloads check your local libraries web site; free access may be available with your library card. (This perma post updated March 4, 2010.) Another excellent list of online alternate format books is here.

Symbol Books
E-books (you can use various text-to-speech programs to have e-books read aloud)
Interactive or Animated Books
Create Books
Other Formats
Multiple Formats (some combination of animated, e-text, audio or video)
    Reminder - for pay sites like Tumblebooks, Bookflix and other check the public library as many offer free access!

    Sunday, November 19, 2006

    Symbol Based Websites

    So many of our students use picture symbols for communication that I thought I would highlight some of the websites that provide us with free or low cost ready made picture symbol activities.

    Symbol World is a British site that contains four site areas ELive, Learning, Stories and My World. The Elive section is avaliable as PDFs or online and contains news, community, films, features, games, recipes and fun areas. The Learning section contains online symbol stories in eight curriculum areas. The stories section has stories for pre-school primary and young adult students that are picture or symbol based. Finally the My World section has stories about children and adults with low incidence disabilities. The site uses Widget symbols and is run by the Widgit Company.

    Also run by the Widgit Company is the Rainforest Symbol Site. I am linking to the ASE Center site that links to this resource because when I link directly it does not work. You have to scroll down to "Lauch Rainforest Pages" and once you be sure to chose "Click for Symbols". This site is well designed for use in a Rainforest Thematic Unit.

    Askability is another Bristish site which has symbol based news, events and fun sections. The fun section may be of particular interest, it contains jokes, riddles, brain teasers and stories. This site also uses Widget symbols.

    New-2-You is an American company that publishes weekly newsletter for printing to use in your classroom. At a cost of $82.00 for one user for a year you get the symbol based newsletters that are on three ability levels, related communication boards and access to Joey's Locker. The Joey's Locker section contains stories, cartoons and games. Teachers also get information correlating News-2-You to curriculum guidelines and data collection sheets to download to assist in alternative assessment. Additionally for a small extra expense you can get Spanish editions of the materials.

    Device of the Day - Switch Activated Pouring Cup on a Flexible Mount

    This product, a switch activated measuring cup mounted on a flexible gooseneck mount, from Enabling Devices ($122.95) is my first Device of the Day. I acquired one just this past September, thinking I would use it for cooking lessons.

    I have used it for cooking, and so much more. I've used it in science to measure and pour experiment ingredients, in math to teach measuring liquids, in art to drop glitter and sand onto projects and in even in history when we made Silly Putty in a lesson on 1940's inventions. This device is limited only by creativity.

    Another bonus (that admittedly I viewed as a drawback at first) is that one switch will pour while a second switch with upright the measuring cup. This design creates teamwork between my students who use switches in handling the measuring and pouring. (You can also just move the switch from one port to another). This nifty device has many uses in the intensive special needs classroom.

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