Sally McKeown visits the annual Micros for Special Needs exhibition in Oldham, and discovers much cause for optimism. The Micros for Special Needs exhibition hosted by Semerc at Oldham every autumn is a good way to find out what's new in the way of software and peripherals. This year there was a particularly good crop.
First, from Semerc, is Pages (Acorn and PC Pounds 49), an intuitive DTP package with which you can start anywhere on the page, pull in pictures or draw your own or even scribble a zig-zag line under the title. It has some really welcome features for dyslexic pupils or others with spelling problems. As well as using the spell-checker in the usual way, you can make it highlight all the words it does not recognise and print out the page with all these words in shaded boxes. The pupil can then work on spellings away from the computer, perhaps using a Franklin Spellmaster.
The Semerc Window Box was also unveiled (Pounds 1,299 for a sound- system machine and Pounds 1,499 for a multimedia system). A Research Machines product designed by Semerc, it comes loaded with Colour Magic, First Logo and Talking First Word as you might expect, but also Smart Alex from Brilliant Software, My World for Windows, Informax for designing overlays and Point, a new on-screen overlay keyboard, designed by the Advisory Unit Computers in Education.
The Window Box can be used with Semerc's TouchIt (Pounds 229) a touch screen which works with infra-red sensors. It comes in a standard 14-inch size which fits all current monitors, regardless of machine type. It attaches with four Velcro-type straps which fit so snugly that you can pick the monitor up by the screen.
Windows 95, Microsoft's new operating system for PCs, was also on view. Roger Bates, director of Sensor, the on-line special needs information service run by BT as part of its CampusWorld system, is delighted with the obvious impact that the Americans with Disabilities Act has had on design. The access options like "sticky key" functions and enhanced contrast all load automatically, instead of being bolt-on extras. I particularly liked the fact that all the sound warnings can be replaced by visual clues for deaf users. Windows 95 contains the most comprehensive set of accessibility features. "This demonstrates that legislation can make all the difference when it comes to providing equal access for all. With the current disability bill, it may soon be an issue in Britain as well," says Roger.
Dawsons was a new exhibitor this year, with its MidiCreator which uses switches or pressure pads to drive a synthesiser. The whole purpose of this pocket-sized device is to encourage activity and movement you can even squeeze a foam shape to make music. This will be a useful addition to the physiotherapy activities that are often used for people recovering from strokes. MidiGesture works with MidiCreator to encourage large movements. Wheelchair users can move their arms, legs or even their whole wheelchair to play music.
Music Maker from The Resource Centre, is an excellent introduction to music and musical principles. Children can record and play back their compositions choosing from a variety of instruments, including a cats' chorus! It is good for developing listening skills and while the verbal rewards might be irritating to adults, the little mouse who provides visual rewards is a most endearing character. This program works well with a touch screen, and Brian Stephenson showed how it could be operated via a Braille strip. This is a first-rate product for the home market and will be popular in nurseries and primary schools.
Scion software was showing PC versions of My World Kitchen Designer, Food and Room Planner which are selling well in further education (My World support packs Pounds 24 from Semerc). (Mick Oates is planning more titles for the FE market and would like to hear from lecturers. He can be contacted co Fountaindale School, Nottingham Road, Mansfield, Notts NG18 5BA.) At the other end of the age spectrum TAG had Shape Up for Macintosh (Pounds 39.95 single user) with a whole range of geometrical activities. TAG also kept the crowds amused with poems created using a Zillion Kadjillion Rhymes (Windows or Mac Pounds 39.95) a rhyming dictionary ideal for would-be song writers. They also had EasyBook (Mac Pounds 39.95) a sophisticated book-making package which has beeen used by adult students studying local history.
Finally, those of you with long memories may recall that at last year's show Brian Bangay from the Manchester Hospital Schools Service was looking for resources for Darren, a teenager who had been injured in a car crash. Darren is making good progress in a rehabilitation unit in Buxton and is now quite a competent switch user.
Now they have a young refugee from Bosnia who was injured when his school was bombed. His left arm has been amputated and his right is grafted to his abdomen. He has serious burns to his feet and so cannot use switches. he is learning English at a very fast rate but needs good software with simple text and no babyish graphics. "Pictures of cuddly lambs seem inappropriate to someone is his situation," says Joanna, his tutor. If you have any ideas for suitable resources, contact Lydia Matheson at the National Council for Educational Technology and they'll be added to the special needs co-ordinators' pages.
If you missed Oldham and want to keep up to date with developments in special needs, why not drop in to Nasen's event in Islington, November 6-7, or at Resource in Doncaster on November 24. Alternatively, the NCET is hosting a conference on IT, Disability and Lifelong Learning on February 2, 1996. Contact Tracey Baldwin on 01203 4116994 for details.
Semerc, 1 Broadbent Road, Watershedding, Oldham OL1 4HU. Tel: 0161 627 4469; Computers in Education: 126 Great North Road, Hatfield, Herts AL9 5JZ. Tel: 01707 266714; Sensor 1 Whitecroft Street, Watersheddings, Oldham OL8 4HU. Tel: 0161 627 4003; Dawsons: 65 Sankey Street, Warrington WA1 1SU. Tel: 01925 632591; The Resource Centre, 51 High Street, Kegworth, Derby DE74 2DA. Tel: 01509 672222; TAG Developments, 25 Pelham Road, Gravesend, Kent DA11 0HU. Tel: 0144474 537886; NCET, Milburn Hill Road, Science Park, Coventry CV4 7JJ. Tel: 011203 416994.