Lofty Grant Program Benefits Learning-Disabled Students

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Premier Programming Solutions, a software company that specializes in assistive-technology products for learning-disabled students, is giving away its products to schools, with the goal of installing its products in every U.S. school by 2003. The only requirement is that applicants must be a nonprofit organization, school, library, college or university. As of July, Steve Timmer, president and founder of Premier Programming Solutions, who is himself legally blind, said $6.5 million worth of software had been given away to about 500 educational and nonprofit organizations, including individual schools and entire districts. The grant program is set to end Oct.1, 2002.

Based in DeWitt, Mich., Premier Programming Solutions (517-668-8188; www.premier-programming.com) is giving away its Accessibility Suite to any school that cannot afford to buy assistive software for its learning-disabled students. But they don't have to prove it. We worked on the honor system, says Timmer. "We asked educators if they could afford to pay for it to do so. Because if they were given a grant, some other school who truly needed it may not get it."

Schools receiving the software package will get applications that convert printed materials into audio files, a talking word processor, a screen magnifier that enlarges screen images from 2X to 16X, and a talking Web browser and calculator, among other tools. The programs assist students who are diagnosed with learning disabilities - a broad term that includes vision and mobility impairments to learning. For now, the products focus on reading and writing, but Timmer says the company is planning to release products that cover math and assist the hearing impaired.

Timmer says he hopes to get his programs in every school in the United States over the next year - a considerably lofty goal. But according to the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs, schools nationwide have a need. More than 6 million children and youths currently receive special education and related services, while nearly 200,000 infants, toddlers and their families qualify for early intervention programs and services provided under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Timmer says his own informal research of more than 300 school districts revealed many schools did not have much of a budget for assistive technology, if any. If they did, they didn't have enough, or it was too complex and expensive for home use, he says.

"By providing schools with this type of grant, they are no longer limited to just the significantly impaired individuals," says Timmer. Students who are borderline and don't have a "learning disabled" label can now use it, and ESL students can also benefit from it, he says.

In addition, Timmer says his company is currently working with Canadian firm Global Etext to put together a program and seminar series on how to integrate assistive technology into the classroom and use it as a tool to learn. He's also counting on word-of-mouth to help spread the news about his company's products. In the meantime, Timmer is promising free upgrades and a full-time support staff for one year to all grantees. "Will we truly get every school? No," says Timmer. "But we're going to try."

-Anne H. Kim

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2002 issue of THE Journal.

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