Graphics Tablets Enhance Creativity at NYC's Special Education Multimedia Training CenterCitywide...

Providing multimedia solutions that meet the assistive technology requirements of special needs students in New York City is the mission of the District 75 Multimedia Center. This citywide special education program includes all five boroughs of the city and involves 60 schools serving almost every type of handicapped condition.

Susan Abdulezer is coordinator of the center, which is located in midtown Manhattan at the city's School for the Deaf. "We work extensively with the children here in graphics and multimedia," she says. "In life, people are multi-sensory. We interact verbally by asking questions. That's how we acquire and exchange information.

"The children here are multi-sensory, too, but they are missing hearing. So their language experience is limited, even if they sign because not that many people sign. They get their information best by interacting visually with the information. Thus, we try to create a visual learning and exploration environment in which the thread of information is a visual one rather than the more conventional auditory one," she said.

Sharing Shakespeare

A current project, Sharing Shakespeare, involves using a range of visual references including the authoring of a multimedia software title called Star-Crossed Studies. The teacher in charge is Terry Cambridge. Students not only learn the lines of a play -- this year King Lear, last year Romeo and Juliet -- and perform it using sign language, they also create interactive multimedia software using their own artwork. Some of the students, for example, researched Elizabethan children and sketched what the clothing and customs were like for 5-, 10- and 15-year olds.

"We also digitized QuickTime clips from the play performed by the students so they can actually see themselves signing their lines," said Ms. Abdulezer. "Finished multimedia productions are output to CD ROM, but since the students in the district are not wealthy they tend not to have a lot of computer equipment at home. However, they all have VCRs so we output to videotape and they can bring copies home with them. Software used included Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator and Premiere as well as ClarisWorks and Roger Wagner HyperStudio," she said.

Pressure-Sensitive Batteryless Pens

"The Wacom graphic tablets and electronic pens are another basic tool," she continued. "I introduced the kids to using a pen-based tablet system in September 1995 because it was just more comfortable for them. They had kept complaining about the mouse, saying it was just not natural to use. 

Now we have four Wacom tablets, a 12" x 12" model and three 6" x 8" ones. The big difference is the pen. It is cordless so there is no wire to.tangle. It is pressure sensitive, so the harder you press the thicker a line becomes like a real pen or paintbrush. Also, there are no batteries inside that will run down and have to be replaced."

The Picasso Guernica Project

"We recently did a unit on Picasso's Guernica. We digitized the kids signing various emotions. We put those QuickTime video clips on the same page as the picture of Picasso's painting. We then gave the kids two little canvasses on the same electronic page. On one, they had to sketch their version of the emotions, and they would draw a little self-image of themselves feeling sad or hurt. They then had to draw their impression of how Picasso might have painted the same thing.

Thus, with the finished multimedia work you see each child signing an emotion, their interpretation of it, and their interpretation of Picasso's interpretation. This was in done ClarisWorks so it could be run as a slide show," she said.

" The reason I use and like ClarisWorks is that on the same electronic page, without having to exit and go to another program, you can draw something, you can type something, and you can do a spreadsheet.

"I really like to get kids into using every kind of media and representation to research their data. Even with something as simple as who likes chocolate ice cream, they can draw the ice cream cone. They can create a spreadsheet, and kids simply are not afraid of spreadsheets. They can make a pie or bar chart, and they can type in their own caption. " For the School of the Deaf, we also incorporate a signing video so that the students are obtaining and presenting the data every possible way. And they are creating it themselves.

The Street Signs Project

"For another recently completed project, Street Signs [recently recognized by the Smithsonian as a model], the children designed all the category screens. They took blank pieces of paper with subjects written on them like Wall Street or the Public Library, and they had to do a pencil sketch of the subject. These were then scanned into Photoshop, which we use as an illustration program because you can work with simplified brushes and develop your own palette. I like the combination of getting my basic image sketched in quickly and then using all the plug-ins to get texture and other effects," she stated.

Teacher Training

In addition to multimedia for students, Ms. Abdulezer also conducts basic and intermediate seminars for teachers throughout New York City on how to use multimedia tools. Once a month, teachers come for the entire day and learn about image input, scanning and QuickTime movies. Other sessions include a full-day workshop in Photoshop, another full day with Adobe Premiere, and one more on learning to use HyperStudio.

Abdulezer makes it clear that her focus
is not merely multimedia technique,
but multimedia thinking.

"I talk to them about interface design; in other words, how to develop multimedia projects and how to assess them. All the teachers in the seminar series have to create a multimedia project. In it they have to consider who their audience is, what their authoring program is, and what kind of graphics or iconic scenes they are going to use. They have to include, for example, ways for a user to escape a screen. They have to consider ease of use and what kind of person will be using the software. Also, they have to provide satisfying kinds of interactivity such as spaces to input text and not just button clicking."

A Virtual Alphabet Book

In her off-duty hours, Ms. Abdulezer is developing an interactive version of the traditional alphabet book that is a standard part of a child's growing up. "What I want to do is to present the alphabet in various forms. This includes the regular letters, as well as an oral alphabet for kids who are lip readers or kids who can't code letters yet.

"We also have children, who I call permanent observers, who can't use their hands. They have to use other kinds of devices to communicate such as pointers or communication boards. With this virtual alphabet book, all the common everyday things that other people get to touch and use, these children will be able to interact with. They will be able, through virtual reality software, to move a bear or turn an apple using an infrared head pointer. So this will be a beginning for them to manipulate things and interact with the world around them.

Tools for Developing Ideas

"I think any use of technology is more effective as a tool for developing ideas rather than just taking other people's ideas off the shelf. Using a Wacom tablet for creating an image gives you so much more freedom. And that's what I'm after -- to use the tools to customize the learning for and with students. I would rather the learning be in the hands of the learner rather than my directing them. When people are sitting at the computer drawing, designing, creating and inventing, the tools are in their hands. They are creating their own learning.

"I never assume that a child, no matter how disabled, cannot do something.
And they all just live up to it."

"It's always amazing," she concludes, "the capacity people have to learn, particularly little people who are too small to know that they are not supposed to know how to do something. The reality is that from the moment of birth people are learning one way or the other.

"I know, especially in the area of the handicapped, there are so many pre-conceived and ill-conceived notions. I started this four years ago after teaching many years. I didn't know I would be good at it. But I approached the matter really like a kid -- I just assumed I can do it. And it just comes out. Similarly, I never assume that a child, no matter how disabled, cannot do something. And they all just live up to it. It's great to watch them."

Wacom is best known for having introduced in America in 1989 the world's first cordless, batteryless, and pressure-sensitive electronic pen. It helped revolutionize computer art by allowing electronic artists to paint and draw with natural freedom and creativity in the same way they do with traditional paintbrushes, pens and pencils.

Wacom's most recent innovation is the Wacom Erasing UltraPen, the world's first electronic pen with an eraser. Introduced in 1995, it works like a real eraser -- the harder you press, the more it erases. The Erasing UltraPen is standard with all Wacom tablets. The smallest and most affordable Wacom is its 4" x 5" (active area) tablet, which has a street price of about $150. Larger sizes include a 6" x 8", 12" x 12" and 12" x 18".

Wacom Technology Corp., Vancouver WA, 800-922-6613, ext. 161,

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.