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Utah researchers are developing a statewide referral network aimed at helping disabled people find computers, robotics and even night-vision devices to help them remain independent and productive.

Developed for space, military or industrial use, such breakthroughs "can be prescriptions for independent living and tools of hirability for people with disabilities," says Marvin Fifield, director of the Utah State University Development Center for Handicapped Persons.Utah is among the first nine states awarded federal Department of Education grants to develop the networks that eventually will span the nation.

USU will use its $1.5 million to establish, by year's end, a system of telephone hot lines and computer "bulletin boards" to let professionals and consumers know what's available and where, Fifield said.

Ron Thorkildsen, the center's associate director, said the goal of the project is to keep a person's disability from interfering with employment or from functioning in society.

"The ultimate goal is to reduce the disability as much as possible so the person can function close to normal," he said. "We would like to get to the point that people don't look at someone as being disabled or not disabled. To some extent, everybody has a disability in one way or another."

For example, a person with cerebral palsy may be unable to speak well but can order dinner through a lap-top computer capable of translating words or codes into speech.

Military night-vision devices could amplify light for a vision-impaired person. While no substitute for normal eyesight, the devices can at least give users the ability to see the shapes of doors, walls or curbs.

So far, the problem has been matching a person's specific need with the professional help and technology available, but the USU program should help break down some of the barriers.

"We're trying to get as much information as possible about where these devices are," Thorkildsen said. "There's a lot of `assistive' technology already out there and available. One of the problems is making it available to people who need it."

Eventually, the information will be turned over to a state agency, which will have a toll-free telephone number.

"Some states have been dealing with assistive technology more than other states," he said, adding that Utah's catalog will include information from other states that otherwise would not be available to Utahns.

Thorkildsen said he recently learned of a program in Iowa that makes hand controls and other devices so the handicapped can run farm equipment.

"That's the kind of thing that if we weren't doing (the catalog) people might not know about that Iowa project," he said.

Thorkildsen said those who call the toll-free number, which should be available by fall, also will learn where to get funding for the equipment.

The research also will help parents get modified toys for handicapped children, and help teachers learn about what's available for their students.