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High-tech assistance

Cheryl Browne

By Cheryl Browne, Barrie Examiner

After years of struggling to read and write in class, these kids are becoming the experts at using software that will do it for them -- at summer camp.

A new technology camp geared towards children who have been targeted with learning disabilities by their teachers is being held this week at the Simcoe County District School Board office in Midhurst.

"It's usually really hard for me to read and write," said Ivan Grisdale, 13, who attends Coldwater Public School.

However, with the new Dragon 2010 software he's learning at the board's Summer Assistive Technology Camp, he's making great strides in becoming his school's speech to text translation expert.

"On Dragon, you can just speak it and it gets it," he said excitedly. "I'll be able to use it in class, and yeah, it'll probably change my opinion about school."

Grisdale is one of 16 students in grades 7 and 8 who are taking the afternoon camp, explained Connie Gray, the integrated technology consultant in special education at the board.

There are an additional 16 students from the primary grades in the morning classes, too, she said.

"Their parents are upstairs at the same time, learning how to use the same software as well, so they'll be able to help with homework," said Gray.

Packages such as Dragon's speech-to-text software helps kids like Grisdale, who can't get their thoughts down on paper in a cohesive manner.

They are teaching several different software packages to the children and their parents this week:

WordQ software helps by suggesting words when children type their homework in the pro-g r a m; Inspiration assists by taking simple ideas and helps the student expand upon them, and Kurzweil software is a text to speech program.

Upstairs in the parent's classroom, Rhonda Young said she's previously watched her 14-year-old son Carter Shelp struggle with learning.

"As our teacher told us today," she said, pointing to the parents' classroom, "The information is in their brains, but when it has to travel down the length of their arm (to the pen) it gets lost along the way," she said. "And when (idea) does come out, it takes so much more (thought) to get it out, it comes out wrong."

After learning of her son's learning disability in Grade 4, they slowly started integrating the software during the last few years and really became adept last year with the assistance of Shelp's teacher, Michael Wilson.

"It's made all the difference in the world to Carter," she said of the new software. "He's brilliant with them and he graduated Grade 8 with a 78 average. I've always been proud of him, but now I'm glad to see he's proud of himself."

At the camp, parents also learn how to navigate the special education system to better advocate on their child's behalf, as well as how to celebrate their child's strengths.

When Bonnie Taylor had her son Peter Gilchrist, 13, tested for learning disabilities, he was using every mental trick he could to try to get his thoughts out on paper before they got jumbled.

"When we told him we're getting Dragon and it's going to help you do voice to text, he said, 'You mean I won't have to write anymore? When can we get it?'," she said. "Now, he's a good role model for other kids who were reticent about using the programs in class."

As Gray said, although she's the technology expert in the special needs department, she said once students learn how to use new software, they'll become the experts and surpass her knowledge of the programs.

"When I don't know how to do something, I ask my 14-year-o ld son, or 12-year-old twin daughters," she laughed.

"Once they master a technology, they teach us how to use it."

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