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An inventive approach

For the first nine years of his life, Brent Weir has been trapped by his own body. Deprived of sufficient oxygen at birth, which severely damaged the parts of his brain controlling his limbs and speech, Brent has spent most of his life in a wheelchair, his only communication with the outside world being smiles, screams and cries.

But because of the electronic and computer wizardry of R.J. Cooper, an inventor and computer programer who volunteers his time at R.H. Dana Exceptional Needs Facility, Brent and others like him at the school are now enjoying a degree of independent movement and communication.

Cooper, who uses the school as a lab for inventions he can market elsewhere, has developed computer programs, electronic communication devices and an electric car that severely disabled children can operate.

"This is the best of both worlds for the school and myself," said Cooper, a 38-year-old Dana Point resident. "The school and the children get a lot of programs and equipment that they couldn't otherwise afford and I get to get ideas and see how they work."

Terri Mullen, principal of the 125-student Capistrano Unified School District facility for physically and mentally disabled children under the age of 12, said that Cooper's work had been a godsend for her school.

"R.J. has provided for children who cannot communicate or learn normally ways that they can communicate or learn," Mullen said. "R.J. makes our program accessible to kids who are usually difficult to reach."

Cooper had a cheery and breezy manner as he walked through the facility one recent morning, tousling the hair of almost every child he passed. A volunteer at the school since 1986, he has free access to the classrooms.

It is his educational computer programs for disabled children, most inspired by children at R.H. Dana, that take most of Cooper's time.

"The problem with most of the computer programs commercially available, even those designed for special education, is that there might not be one out there that is suitable for a particular child," Mullen said. "The program might expect the child to answer too quickly or the scenes might flash across the screen too fast and the child isn't quick enough to respond."

Cooper takes the child aside and tries to find out what his or her limitations are.

"I'll write a program, bring it to school, try it on the child, rush home to my computer, make some revisions, bring it back, rush home again and keep repeating that until we've got it right, working closely with the school psychologist to see what is going on inside as well as outside the child," Cooper said.

Over the years at the school, Cooper has found it hardest to find programs and devices to help children such as Brent, who have both limited movement and communication skills.

To help Brent communicate, Cooper recently adapted a small cassette tape player using its stereo capabilities. A tape loop is inserted in the player. Recorded on one channel of the tape are "yes" answers; on the other channel are "no" answers.

Two wires run from the player and are connected to buttons. One button is attached to the left side of the brace supporting Brent's head, the other to the right side. When Brent is asked a question _ for example "Are you in pain?" _ he answers by pressing his head on the left button to activate the speaker that is playing "yes," and on the right button to activate the speaker playing "no."

One of Cooper's latest inventions is the CooperCar, an adaptation of a child's electronic dune buggy that he has begun to market nationally. About 3 feet long and 3 feet high, the six-wheeled buggy costs about $300. The kit to modify the car is another $495.

Buttons are attached to the car's headrest in a manner similar to the yes-no device. A child pushes a button behind his head to accelerate and turn left and right. Wires run from the car to a joy stick that is carried by a parent or other monitor walking alongside, allowing them to override the child's directions.

Cooper and Mullen see the device as a step in getting a child ready for an electric wheelchair.

"An electronic wheelchair can cost upward of $10,000, so it's important that a child be ready to use one before one is purchased," Cooper said.

Leaning his chin forward and then throwing his head backward into the headrest, Brent had the CooperCar speeding across the playground one recent morning. Two able-bodied fourth-graders from a neighboring school, taking turns as Brent's monitor, were forced to trot alongside to keep up.

"On the first day R.J. finished the CooperCar, he brought it to our house and put Brent in it," said Terri Weir. "Brent drove it all the way around the cul de sac again and again. He really likes it and he can't wait to get in it."

"A lot of the (able-bodied) children have started coming up to him and talking to him because they think the car is cool," his mother said, adding that before this, Brent had little interaction with children.

"Somebody was watching Brent on the playground with the other children last week and she told me something kinda neat," Cooper said. "She said this is probably the first time Brent has been asked about an ability he has rather than his disability."