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A special kind of help

Martin Littler finds how technology can help overcome sensory barriers. Each October, Minneapolis becomes the meeting place for the two thousand teachers, therapists and technologists who attend "Closing the Gap". This mixture of a four-day exhibition and massive six-day seminar programme is the American melting pot for ideas on how technology can help learners with physical, communication and sensory problems.

Bud and Dolores Hagan had a 12-year-old son who was deaf. After much research, they found that his teachers and speech pathologists were not aware of the technology which could help Marc learn. To "close the gap" between technologists who had information and teachers, therapist and parents who needed it, they started a bi-monthly newsletter called Closing the Gap. This led to the annual conference which fills every room in the massive Radisson Hotel, where the event has been held for the past 12 years.

The first two days are taken up with 18 pre-conference workshops which can count as credits towards a modular degree. In all there are 150 workshops and presentations chosen from the 300 pages of proposals. Before, during and after workshops there are corporate breakfasts, lunches and dinners; annual meetings of speech pathologists and earnest clutches of delegates networking over endless cups of free coffee. Amid all of this, from Wednesday evening to Saturday, 500 presenters representing 135 exhibitors work from busy "booths".

Americans take disability seriously. The American Disability Act (ADA) means that every bus I saw had a wheelchair lift, every hotel room was also numbered in Braille, and every "rest room" I visited had disabled facilities. The same way of thinking covers computer access and this is what really drives this event.

Berkeley Systems is well known for its After Dark screen savers. This product funds its main activity specialist software for the visually impaired. Berkeley's outSPOKEN screen reader which makes computer desktops accessible to the blind has been available on Macintosh since 1989 and has just been launched on Windows. The five-year gap is typical in a field where Macs have a five to one dominance over PC. I watched a blind Berkeley presenter chatting to customers while deftly navigating around a Windows screen he could only hear.

Nearby wearing propeller hats were Bill Lynn and Richard Wanderman. They have produced a suite of Macintosh activities for less able switch users. Bill is a speech and language pathologist at the Connecticut Department of Mental Retardation.

Best known in Britain for its Touch Window, Edmark is a company which produces powerful and witty software for less able learners. My colleague, Trish Hornsey, had to be pulled away from Thinkin' Things 2 when she got to the section where you create and repeat melodies on an on-screen xylophone built from representations of sheep.

Opposite was Don Johnston Inc, the biggest special needs supplier at the show. With Ke:nx, it has the industry standard for giving access to the Macintosh (but not Windows) for users with any disability using any access device. This year it was showing its new U-Kan-Du CD-Rom learning materials, masterminded by an ex-Disney graphic artist.

IntelliTools is Don Johnston's big rival and very different in style. Intellitools has worked with the big learning CD producers like Br?derbund and Edmark, so that every page of every story is automatically accessible to switch users using Clickit! which also provides mouseless access to menus and dialogue boxes. An ItelliKeys overlay file is also automatically in place so that each talking book can be explored using their overlay keyboard. The company's president told me that he aims to make products "affordable and somewhat elegant". IntelliTalk, a simple talking word processor for Dos (at last) and Macintosh is certainly affordable at $40. The eight melting pigs which appear in IntelliPics software suite are less than elegant but huge fun.

In downtown Minneapolis, in America's largest shopping mall, most software is now sold on CD-Rom,with one retailer carrying no programs at all on disc. This trend was evident at "Closing the Gap" with most new titles on CD only.

Having largely solved the access problems to Macintosh and Windows, the American special needs software producers have turned their attention to producing CDs full of lively learning materials which automatically load the extra utilities each disabled user needs. Next year should be fascinating.

Closing the Gap, 0101-612 248 3294; Berkeley Systems, 0101-510 540 5535; Bill and Richard's Software, 0101-203 567 4307; Edmark, 0101-206 556 8400; Don Johnston (UK), 061-627 0919; IntelliTools, 0101-510 528 0670 TES reviewers go to America for the latest software for special needs . .

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