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magazine home > archives > winter 2001 > features
One client calls it a "miracle place" while another refers to it as "the place that saved my life." The University of Memphis' Mid-South Access Center for Technology is using technology to dramatically enhance the lives of individuals with disabilities and impairments.

A Tough ACT to Follow
by Greg Russell

For several years, Ted O'Brien's world consisted of three television channels, the bed he lay in and little contact with the outside world. Not much more than the four walls around him.

"My English was deteriorating, I was losing contact with my friends, and I was becoming very myopic about the world around me," says O'Brien, a quadriplegic.

ACT client with voice-activated computer

According to ACT director Karen Anderson,the Center looks at individuals with disabilities and matches them with whatever it takes to allow them to access their environments.

O'Brien now says he owes his life to a University of Memphis resource that is broadening horizons for people across the region. The Mid-South Access Center for Technology (ACT) is helping people with disabilities learn how to use devices that will enhance their lives.

ACT found a way for O'Brien to delve into the world of computers and the Internet with voice-activation software. The 40-year-old former cotton broker can surf the Internet, trade e-mails and send and receive scanned pictures through his computer, all with voice commands.

"You can imagine what my world was like," says O'Brien. "Here I am in a nursing home, with no input from the outside world, other than what I had on television."

The one-time outdoor enthusiast has been confined to the King's Daughters and Sons Nursing Home in Memphis with a broken neck suffered during an accident on a business trip to Australia 10 years ago.

"ACT put meaning back into my life," he says. "I am writing letters to my friends and I can read books on the Internet. Friends who I had not heard from in years would see my name pop up on someone else's e-mail, and soon I would hear from them.

"There are so many places I can visit. I found a site with an overhead picture of a spot where I used to fish in Belize. I am even in a fantasy football league with about 10 other guys."

When ACT was first notified of O'Brien, the center evaluated what software and hardware would help him navigate the Internet and get the most use of his computer. ACT studied and installed the system. The center then trained O'Brien to use it.

"It was by no means a simplistic effort on their part," O'Brien notes. "Their lack of selfishness with their time, and their bedside manner made it happen. I get frustrated very easily and they saw that immediately and worked right through it."

What ACT did for O'Brien is typical of what the new center is doing for people with disabilities in the region.

"We look at individuals with disabilities and match them with whatever it takes that allows them to access their environment," says ACT director Karen Anderson. "It might be as simple as a modification to a spoon, or it might be training them to use a remote control device."

For Terry and Janeene Barnett, ACT is dramatically changing the life of their son Adam, who has cerebral palsy and who is also an amputee.

"To me, ACT is a miracle place," says Janeene. "The things they are doing are life-changing; the person will take this stuff with them for the rest of their lives."

Before going to ACT, Adam was having difficulty writing and his reading level was behind. The center introduced him to a computer and software that allows him to write. His reading level went from a first-grade level to a third-grade level in eight weeks.

"Adam has the IQ to be employable and that is the goal here, to get his reading level up and to get him using the computer consistently where he can do data entry for somebody," Janeene says. "Most importantly, his self esteem has gone through the roof. He is doing things he has never been able to do before."

The center's $500 fee includes an initial evaluation, recommendation and training. The center does not purchase any of the equipment, but does have a hands-on laboratory of resources where clients may first try software and hardware to see if it is functional in their lives before they purchase it. Though it is a fee-for-service center, ACT has a policy of rejecting no one. "If someone can't pay for the services, we look at other means," says Anderson.

Anderson says ACT is a "big coup" for The U of M. "There are only 48 centers like this.ours is the only center directly affiliated with a university," she says. "We are getting calls daily for evaluations. The closest center to us-one in Jackson, Tenn.-annually takes in $2 million in income providing a variety of assistive technology services in West Tennessee. With the huge population here in Memphis and with this being a major medical center, you can see the potential here."

The idea started with a $15,000 Technology Access Fee grant several years ago. Students at The U of M pay a technology access fee at registration with a portion going to help professors integrate technology into their curricula. Dr. Tom Buggey, an associate professor of instruction and curriculum leadership, used the grant to create "Buggey's Buggy, a mobile computer lab that helps education students, teachers and parents learn about assistive technology such as scanning boards, touch-screens and communication switches. "Many teachers aren't aware of the devices available to help kids who have physical disabilities," says Buggey.

The College of Education expanded Buggey's program by establishing a center in 1998 designed for caregivers, students, individuals with disabilities and teachers who need assistive technology information or services. ACT just moved into expanded office and laboratory space on the bottom floor of Ball Hall on campus.

"We are growing faster than we can keep up with, staff-wise," says Anderson. Besides herself, Anderson has two full-time staff members, a co-director who is a volunteer, four part-time employees and two graduate assistants.

ACT's clients have included individuals with Down syndrome, muscular dystrophy, visual and hearing impairments, and babies with severe physical impairments stemming from brain hemorrhages. Many clients are school children who need help in finding technology that will allow them to function in classrooms. "We see everything from mild to severe impairments," she says. "And from age 0 to 99."

ACT, a member of the national Alliance for Technology Access, has been contracted by Tipton and Fayette county school systems to train their teachers in the use of assistive technology in the classroom. Pre-service teachers in The U of M's Department of Education also are given instruction in the use of assistive technology.

Anderson says the ultimate dream for ACT is to have an abandoned building the size of a Wal-Mart with space for offices, training and evaluation rooms, a computer lab and a warehouse to store equipment. "The need is that great," she says.

For O'Brien, ACT helped tear down the four walls he faced on a daily basis, and has helped bring his family back into his life. "My children live in Mississippi, and I only see them about once every three months," says O'Brien. "Talking to them on the phone, it is hard to detect their growth, but now I get pictures of them every week or so through my computer. What ACT has done for me has been unbelievable."

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