1998 Conference Proceedings

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Nicole Fauquier
Colleen A. Haney
Mary Beth Crowe
United Cerebral Palsy of Greater Chicago
332 West Harrison Street
Oak Park, Il 60304
Voice: (708)383-8887
Fax: (708) 383-9123


While the development and provision of educational and vocational training programs for adults with physical and developmental disabilities presents many challenges and opportunities, technology has proved to be a valuable tool. By providing access to the environment and to the community, individuals with disabilities have been supported in their independence in a special project in Chicago. During 1996 to 1998 a computer training program was developed to provide a structured means for individuals with multiple disabilities to participate in an intergenerational partnership with senior citizens, to develop competencies in computer use, and to form social networks. The project was designed to become a long-term venture in providing ongoing opportunities for participants to develop skills in computer use and strengthen community involvement.


The initiation of the project involved the recruitment of adults with multiple disabilities and local senior citizens. Individuals from the United Cerebral Palsy Association of Greater Chicago, who attend a day program at the Levinson Center in Oak Park, IL, were surveyed for interest in a special computer project. Four consumers with multiple disabilities,Bill, Marie, Andrew, and Beryl,(referred to throughout this paper as ?Consumers?), were selected to comprise the pilot team of computer trainers.

The ages of the Consumers ranged from 32 to 44 years old. There were two women and three men who participated. All the Consumers used wheelchairs for mobility. Two of the four Consumers experienced unintelligible speech. One of the two Consumers, Andrew, used an augmentative communication device while the other Consumer Beryl, required the support of familiar communication partners to translate her speech. All of the Consumers with the exception of Andrew, required the use of switches or adapted keyboards to access the computer. Two of the Consumers literacy skills were at a third grade level while the other Consumers were at approximately a first grade level with some splinter skills in phonics and recognizing some sight words. All of the Consumers had visual challenges, three of which were corrected by glasses. The majority of Consumers computer exposure was limited to playing games on systems already set-up for them. However, Andrew had prior exposure to computers as a result of taking an introduction to computers course at a local university.

This special computer project was funded by a grant from the Dr. Scholl Foundation. The funding acquired through the grant was used to purchase equipment such as; three computers (two IBM, one Macintosh) all of which were equipped with 20 inch monitors, two computer tables, as well as software and peripherals for Internet access and word processing capabilities. Services for the project were funded by United Cerebral Palsy of Greater Chicago by both a Project Director and two Project Coordinators. The Project Coordinators, both Speech-Language Pathologists, have provided services to the Consumers for at least six months prior to the start of the computer project. These services included programming and maintaining augmentative communication devices and assisting the Consumers? preparations to attend national conferences.

In order to prepare for Phase I of the computer classes the Project Director and Project Coordinators met three months prior to the project?s start date to develop a curriculum. Previous attempts at finding a curriculum already developed were unsuccessful. Although there were a variety of basic computer curriculums available, few if any were found to be both age appropriate and sensitive to adults with learning disabilities. Specifically, no curriculums were found which target adults with emerging literacy.

The first activity for the Consumers was the development of a ?recruitment workshop? to be presented at a local activity center for senior citizens. The Consumers spent 3 two hour classes with the Project Coordinators determining the information that should to be presented to the senior citizens. The focus of the workshop was to peak the seniors interest in learning and using computers, and to highlight opportunities for community networking.

Following the development of the workshop curriculum, the Project Coordinators and one Consumer, Bill, met with a group of 25 senior citizens at the Oak Park Arms Retirement Community. During the presentation, the seniors were introduced to the purposes of the computer project, the features of the Levinson Center, and the functional applications of and opportunities available in using computer technology. The presentation ended with an opportunity for the seniors to ask questions, sign an interest sheet, and talk further with Bill and the program coordinators. In addition, the seniors had the opportunity to explore a sample of the computer programs which would be available to them if they chose to participate. Finally, in order to guide the content of the computer classes, the consumers and the seniors were surveyed to determine the topics and material they were most interested in learning. The primary areas of interest included computer navigation, word processing, multimedia, e-mail and the Internet. Interested seniors were encouraged to sign a sheet which included their name, telephone number and address as well as any previous computer experience.


The Project Coordinators began calling the interested seniors. Calls were placed based on the level of the seniors computer experience (more experience was preferred but not required) as well as any enthusiasm observed by either Bill or the Project Coordinators at the time of the workshop. Although some senior citizens had signed the interest sheet at the time of the workshop, it became clear as calls were placed, that the majority of our pool of senior candidates were unable to participate. Eventually, two senior citizens were recruited. The senior citizens, (referred to as 'Seniors') were women at least over the age of 60. Both held at least a high school diploma and neither of the Seniors wore assistive listening devices. Only one of the Seniors had visual challenges, yet this was corrected by glasses. However, this Senior also underwent Cataract surgery midway through our computer class project.

Phase I of the project involved two preparation classes with the Consumers prior to the first joint class with the Seniors. These classes began with the identification of computer hardware and desktop components. Once these competencies had been mastered, the Consumers were instructed how to teach these newly acquired concepts to the Seniors. As the project progressed, mastery of computer competencies and teaching skills continued to be the primary components of the Consumers? training. These classes provided opportunities to learn content material and also to address the issues often involved when working with other people.

In addition to direct teaching of computer concepts and teaching skills, it was discovered that the Consumers required support in understanding and using pragmatic skills involved in personal commitments and partnerships. Consumer needs were identified in the areas of socialization, hygiene, and accountability in prioritizing commitments on both personal and professional levels.

In the area of socialization, the consumers required direct instruction in initiating conversations, introducing topics, and responding to comments made and questions posed by the Seniors. The Consumers required weekly monitoring and prompts for self-evaluation of basic personal hygiene such as cleanliness, body odor, dental hygiene, skin care, dress, and grooming. Discussions were held regarding appropriate personal hygiene for both informal and more formal social interactions. Classes also extended beyond the curriculum to address issues of commitment to the project and personal management skills.

Phase II of the project included participation by the Seniors and focused on the basic competencies of comprehension and recognition of computer hardware and navigation for both IBM and Macintosh platforms. Depending on the content material being taught, it was noted that the seniors benefited from varied levels of support provided by the Consumers and the Project Coordinators. Also, based on observations and participants? feedback, the presentation of new content material was determined by the rate at which information was mastered by the Seniors. For instance, the Seniors required minimal auditory cues in order to recall the names and functions of hardware components. However, in learning to manipulate a mouse and on-screen pointer, the Seniors required practice over multiple classes with numerous models and hand over hand assistance.


At the conclusion of the project, planned outcomes were evaluated and other outcomes were identified. Planned outcomes proved that; 1) the participants, both the Seniors and the Consumers increased their computer skills 2) a team was created that consisted of senior citizens and individuals with multiple disabilities to be trainers and 3) a computer curriculum was developed. Planned outcomes were also attained in the creation of positive relationships between the Consumers and the Seniors. The Seniors felt comfortable interacting with the Consumers, sharing personal information, and welcoming their peers to the group. The Consumers reciprocated this emotional connection as they were empowered with the opportunity to collaborate with the Seniors and share their computer knowledge.

Throughout the project, participants? commitment, motivation, personal health, and logistical complications affected how classes proceeded. For example, during one class, one Consumer was absent in order to shop for a television and one Senior was absent due to illness. These interruptions resulted in unplanned outcomes for the Consumers. One such outcome was that the Consumers? realized their role and responsibility within the group. This included being at class on time and notifying others in case of absence. As a result of absences, the Project Coordinators spent time emphasizing to the Consumers the importance of mutual dependency when teaming for a project of this kind. A second outcome attained by the Consumers, was an awareness of their responsibility to follow-up with absent participants through phone call or by letter.


Although the initial goals of the project focused primarily around creating a computer skills based curriculum at the Levinson Center to foster intergenerational relationships, the project revealed many other critical learning opportunities. First, when working with adults with multiple disabilities and senior citizens, a variety of outcomes should be expected. The curriculum must either include or be flexible enough to accommodate for the social, environmental, and personal issues that became apparent during this computer project. Second, the design of classes should prepare for discrepancies in the learning styles and skill levels of all the participants. For instance, it took four 1 hour classes to prepare the Consumers to teach one 1 hour class to the Seniors. Yet, it also took four 1 hour classes for the Seniors to learn the proprioceptive skills required to navigate the mouse. Third, in comprising a team of adults with multiple disabilities and senior citizens, project coordinators must be prepared for both the positive aspects and for the disruptions and difficulties experienced by organizing such a team. For example, when the senior citizens did not show up for classes, it was critical to address the reactions, or in some cases the lack of reactions of the consumers. These disruptions caused by the Seniors health and travel issues affected the Consumers? motivation and their perceptions of senior citizens as a group.

Implications for future projects

Future considerations for enhancing the outcomes and direction of this project have been identified. The first of these involves expanding the computer training curriculum to address more advanced topics such as the Internet and multimedia. This goal requires an increase in the frequency and duration of classes. Secondly, it is recommended that more opportunities be provided for the Consumers and the Seniors to analyze the content of the classes and to offer suggestions for improvements and modifications. Thirdly, supports should be provided on a daily basis at the training center to allow for practice opportunities and carryover of skills learned. It is critical that the competencies gained in the project be reinforced through application to meaningful tasks such as letter writing, personal management, and banking and budgeting. Finally, support structures should be available to accommodate for logistic breakdowns. For example, backup transportation options should be in place in the event that an individual has trouble with commuting.

As described above, the focus of future curriculum planning will include new and important components for making this project a continued success. It is apparent that, for an innovative multi-generational program such as this, there are significant variables which must be addressed and planned for in order to support the needs of the participants. In order to determine the variables relevant to working with adults with multiple disabilities and senior citizens as well as other cohorts, a comprehensive needs assessment must be completed. This assessment must incorporate both curricular needs as well as environmental and social issues affecting the participants. Such as transportation and health issues. Thus, due to the nature of the aging process, it is important to have a larger pool of senior citizens available when attempting a similar project. It is likely that these findings can be applied to the development of curriculums and programs for any population and other content areas. This project has demonstrated that individuals with multiple disabilities could in fact be the trainers of other able-bodied populations. Future hopes for this project plan to continue working with senior citizens as well as children in early intervention programs and their families. Future research and projects including adults with and without multiple disabilities will aid in providing further information and highlight best practices for adult services.

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