Center helps students beat inconveniences
Customized equipment, assistive tools are offered at discounts
By Noh Hyun-gi
Every year, the number of “integrated” classrooms is increasing. In 2011, 70 percent of some 80,000 students with disabilities studied in regular schools, compared to 56 percent of 70,000 in 2000, according to the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology.
Though new schools are equipped with ramps and lifts to accommodate the pupils, wheelchairs and other auxiliary devices make them conspicuous. Fortunately, a government-subsidized institute is helping minimize inconveniences for them.
The Seoul Assistive Technology Service Center in Goduk-dong takes orders from parents and school teachers to modify regular furniture for children with varying physical disabilities.
For example, the center’s technicians can add arm rests, safety belts, cushion or leg separators to a classroom chair in three weeks. This customization only costs material fees — an average of 25,000 won. Anyone can order up to three items at the center. Seoul residents may qualify for discounts of up to 80 percent.
“A timely intervention can change a child’s life,” Ma Hyun-jeong told The Korea Times. The occupational therapist works at the subsidiary of the Seoul Community Rehabilitation Center that opened in December 2008.
Each year, the center makes about 300 items tailored to each child’s condition, taking into consideration the degree of paralysis, ability to stand without assistance, body shape and so on.
“Children grow fast and even slight shifts in their body can cause discomfort when they use factory-made products. Our service is an affordable way to respond to those changes,” she added.
To give the children as similar a childhood as their peers as possible, the center offers modified bicycles for rent. They have belts, cushions and long-armed handles.
“Riding a bike is a universal childhood memory. Giving this mobility boosts children’s self-esteem. Also, it is a great way to interact with siblings who do not have disabilities,” Ma said.
Children are not the only beneficiaries. For less than 10,000 won, anyone can have kitchen utensils that fit stiffened hands from conditions such as arthritis.
On comparing factory-made utensils from the United States to the center’s creations, she said it is not rocket science to accommodate specific needs. The staff members use a melting pot to shape plastic handles within minutes.
“It takes a lot of trial and error, but simple forks and spoons such as these allow users to exercise their grip and gain independence in daily activities,” Ma explained.
In addition to tailoring services, the center offers a leasing program where people can rent assistive equipment for up to a year. It costs 10 percent of the price of the machine to keep it for a full year.
“Finding an electronic chair under 1 million won is impossible; a large key keyboard can cost up to 2 million won. Thus, thorough research is necessary before making a purchase,” Ma said.
The center boasts an extensive collection of IT-access devices that have made the most profound changes. Specialty keyboards have color-coded keys, register slight pressure and take various shapes. Advanced mice can be manipulated with the feet, eye-movements, or even breathing.
“These really open a new world to our users,” she said. Disabled teenagers also follow K-pop stars, just like their peers. A man who rented a keyboard now works as a publicity agent and used to write on the center’s blog about his experience.
Seoul’s initiative is rippling across the country. Assistive technology service centers have mushroomed. City-based institutes in Daegu, Gwangju and Jeju also provide rental services. Gyeonggi Province launched a program in March to provide tailored sitting and standing assistance to 80 children and adolescents.
During her four years at the center, Ma has seen an expansion of support from the Ministry of Health and Welfare.
However, she sees more room for government support for low-middle class households with disabled children.
“Low-income families receive subsidies from the government. However, these devices are exorbitant even for households with a steady income. ”
Ma also stressed the importance of supporting caregivers directly. Currently, machines such as home lifts are not subsidized by the government.
“We see many elderly citizens who take care of their immobile spouses and given the heavy lifting they do daily, we are looking at thousands of future back-pain patients. It would be a preventive measure to shoulder their responsibilities together,” she said.