SCARBOROUGH – When Paul Agnew began teaching students with developmental disabilities at the Morrison Center in Scarborough three years ago, about a year before the first iPads hit the commercial market, he noticed that the first instinct of his charges when using a computer was to try and touch icons and other items on the screen.

“It was like, ‘I want this, I’m going to reach out and grab it,’” he said. “That’s a very natural thing to do. But instead, I had to try and teach them how to use a mouse, which, as you can understand, with having to both manipulate it and track it on screen, can be a pretty difficult thing to do. It’s not always very easy, because most of these students have problems with fine motor skills, among other issues.”

So, from the moment the iPad came out, Agnew knew he wanted them for his students.

Last week, that became possible, thanks to a local charity, The Robbie Foundation, which donated 24 iPads to the center, which provides services to children and adults with disabilities. The devices are preloaded with special learning apps, along with accessories and teacher training in the most effective uses for iPads in a classroom with the developmentally disabled.

The gift was made possible by a $25,000 grant it obtained from another Maine nonprofit, the Davis Family Foundation.

“I’m just totally jazzed that we are able to provide this service,” said Robbie Foundation founder Lynn Gierie. “It opens a whole new world for children with disabilities. Essentially, it brings the world to the child who is unable to explore it on their own.

“We are hopeful that this pilot with be just the first of many programs like this in the state of Maine,” said Gierie.

The Robbie Foundation was created in May 2010, by Gierie and her husband Robert Gierie Jr. in honor of their son, who experienced damage to the basal ganglia part of his brain – which controls all motor skills – during birth, resulting in severe cerebral palsy. He cannot walk or speak, but the Gieries learned firsthand just how useful a touchscreen tablet computer could be.

“His own iPad is used as his communication device at school and at home,” said Lynn Gierie. “It is essentially his voice. It’s an extremely powerful tool for learning.”

Perhaps more importantly, the iPad serves as a socialization platform, online and off. Robbie uses it to Skype with former instructors now living in Arizona and, his mother notes, it also serves as a conversation starter when he’s out in the community, such as when another curious child can’t resist approaching Robbie to ask him questions about his iPad.

“Oh, he’s right on top of the social media, in every way,” said Gierie, with a laugh.

The mission of the Robbie Foundation is to broaden the experiences of children with disabilities from birth to age 20 in ways that pull them into the social fabric of their communities. It does so primarily by supplying the adaptive equipment parents cannot get through their insurance providers. For example, this past July it gave a $2,500 special tricycle to disabled siblings Coleman and Annie Nee of Scarborough, allowing them to carouse their neighborhood for the first time in ways most children take for granted.

The iPad donation is the foundation’s biggest gift to date, and one that is especially meaningful to the Gierie family. Robbie is now fully integrated into Scarborough’s public school system as an eighth-grader at the middle school, but he got there, in part, thanks to attending the Morrison Center’s preschool program.

“As a parent of a child with special needs, I always made it a personal quest of mine to somehow think about how we could give back to the Morrison Center for all that they did for Robbie’s early intervention,” said Gierie.

The center’s executive director, Mark Ryder, says the iPads are something of a godsend.

“I can’t thank the Robbie Foundation enough,” he said. “This gives us the ability to bridge gaps, whether a child responds better to audio or video stimulus, to engage the whole class. It will let kids access the curriculum in really fun and exciting ways and contribute to their learning in ways they hadn’t been able to before.

“Most of our 16 students in K-12 have multiple handicaps,” said Ryder. “All have significant communication deficits. Some are nonverbal even. This assists the students in making choices, which is really a big concept here.”

Morrison’s IT support coordinator, Justin Brown, says the iPads have a “guided access,” a system that allows teachers to “lock-out” certain buttons and features. That helps the child from activating the wrong button in an app, but also from inadvertently downloading Angry Birds.

“Also, we can customize each machine to the vocabulary of each student,” said Brown, “That’s especially helpful because a lot of communication devices that do essentially what the iPad does can cost up to $5,000. The iPad is less expensive but also more versatile.”

In addition to regular instruction, the iPads also are expected to help non-verbal students communicate with teachers in ways they could not before.

Previously, a child who had to go to the bathroom might have had no recourse other than to act out, said Agnew. Now, just touching an onscreen icon gets the point across.

“This helps the students to feel successful and empowered, which is a important,” said Agnew.

The machines also are expected to help Morrison Center staffers.

“One of the biggest things for us is just the efficiency and speed with which we can create the materials we use,” said Agnew.

Now, instead of taking time to create visuals on a computer, printing them, backing them on a hard surface and laminating them, teachers can simply download what they need.

“Before, it might take a couple of days – because we have limited time when we’re not with our students – from when we realized we needed a certain symbol for a student to work with to when we actually had it,” said Agnew. “Now, if I need a symbol, I can have it onscreen ready for the student to work with in a matter of seconds.”

The Robbie Foundation donation also includes “Big Grips” – large rubber cases that protect the machines from harm in case they are dropped, while also providing large handles to help better manipulate the tablets.

“You can’t expect no loss,” said Brown. “We’re not going to treat them like glass slippers. We definitely want to get them into the kids’ hands.

“We’re using them as a tool to open up abilities for our kids, to let more kids to more things” said Brown. “This isn’t just, ‘Hey, let’s get some iPads because that’d be cool.’”

“We would have got these anyway, but it would have been done slowly over time, one here and one there,” said Agnew. “We are so excited and thankful to the Robbie Foundation for getting them all in our hands at one time.”

Mindy Bisson, an 18-year-old senior at the Morrison Center in Scarborough, works with her educational technician, Christina Troiano, on an iPad recently donated to the school by the Robbie Foundation, using a $25,000 grant from the Davis Family Foundation.    

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