Microsoft Helps Developmentally Challenged Children in New Zealand Learn and Communicate

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand, Feb. 26, 2001 — Charlie was born prematurely, and few thought he would survive. And while his strength brought him through the trauma of cerebral palsy and multiple disabilities, no one imagined that he could lead a meaningful life.

All of that has changed. A lively example of the computer-based education program he inspired, Charlie, now 5, is learning and expressing himself.

Charlie attends the Champion Centre at Burwood Hospital in Christchurch, New Zealand, which for 23 years has been helping significantly developmentally delayed children. At the center, kids use computer-assisted teaching to help them make choices by pointing to the screen or to an expanded keyboard, or by scanning using a highlight box. Talking word processors also have been used as part of a reading program.

Children with conditions such as Down syndrome, disabling genetic conditions, cerebral palsy, brain damage, developmental verbal dyspraxia (difficulty of expression through speech), multiple disabilities, and sensory impairment learn to use new communication tools and forms of expression through early-intervention programs, including physiotherapy, speech, language, and developmental therapy.

When Charlie was 2, his visible response to images on a computer screen surprised teachers at the center. Computer Educator Hilary Stock decided to explore further how technology could help Charlie and other children, but funding was scarce.

“It was clear to me that technology could greatly influence the development of cognition and communication skills in these children, especially if we could start helping them at a very early age,”
she said.

The Microsoft subsidiary in New Zealand heard from the center and was quick to get involved. Microsoft employees worked with the center to develop a program to integrate more technology — as well as augmentative communication such as speech boards, much like electronic picture cards — into the Champion Centres learning environment.

“We saw that children with multiple disabilities could have a better chance of having a meaningful life by using technology,”
said Microsoft New Zealand Managing Director Geoff Lawrie.
“It is a very inspiring project, and we were pleased to have been able to provide the necessary support and tools the center needed to open the minds of the champions in the classroom.”

The three-year pilot project at the Champion Centre is called Moving Young Children Beyond the Difference. Since the project began last June, 40 children aged 3 to 5 who attend the center are using speech boards and other technology, along with conventional tools and therapies, to help them overcome their disabilities, learn to communicate and prepare to live in a world where they can understand and be understood. Each child will stay in the program until he or she is ready to take on the rigors of regular schools, or until the pilot expires.

Charlie, who had difficulty holding up his head less than a year ago, now can sit at a computer for about an hour, count to 20, and make choices using the computers. He is expected to enroll in a regular school in May.

Charlies parents are grateful for the center and the program. They said the centers dedication to helping children with disabilities has been

Without the guidance from the Champion Centre and the extra computer hours funded by Microsoft, all our dreams would not have been possible. Now, Charlie is looking forward to starting school just one year into the program,”
said Leesa, Charlies mother.

Benjamin, 4, who has Down syndrome, also is growing and learning with the Microsoft-funded language program. Benjamin, unable to communicate effectively with family and caregivers when he started, now can form two-word sentences, repeat words he hears on the computer, and make choices and associations — such as associating pictures with words.

It means a lot to John and me and our whole family, in fact, that Microsoft has made this all possible,” said Angela, Benjamins mother.

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