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Programs enable disabled
to handle money and finances

Helping the disabled manage money Anyone with a mentally disabled loved one who wants to live on his or her own knows the perils that they face would daunt even the bravest among us.

The mechanics of bill paying and budgeting pose a huge challenge for elderly persons experiencing the first stages of senility, as well as those with a learning disability.

But now grassroots advocates for the mentally disabled are devising ways to help them manage money.

For seniors who want to live independently, despite memory lapses or the early stages of Alzheimer's, Northshore Eldercare Management in Evanston, Ill., offers a bill-paying service.

Northshore workers learn from day one not to look surprised by a wad of charge card receipts cemented together with old cat food, or at the 200 plastic bunny lawn ornaments charged by phone.

Baby boomers worried about their aging parents often find companies such as Northshore a good bargain. Northshore charges $40 an hour for bill paying and balancing checkbooks. An Illinois certified social worker costs $75 for the same amount of time.

Alternatives to a nursing home
Fleet Bank, with branches throughout the Northeast, urges customers visiting its Web site to consider such methods rather than shipping Mom off to a wildly expensive retirement village just because she can't handle plastic.

Service Credit Banking, a Web site created at the University of Maryland, asks volunteers across the nation to tackle the task. Senior citizens offer to do tasks such as banking and bill-paying for the less-able elderly. In return, they get help from volunteers in organizations such as the Red Cross for tasks they find daunting, such as weeding a garden or dealing with car repairs.

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"The same sorts of memory gaps -- forgetting bill and coin values, difficulty calculating how much is left before you hit a credit card limit -- happen in senility and retardation," explains Dallas special education teacher Don Hamblin. He created and supervises Cleaning Eagles, a dry-cleaning business that prepares his learning-disabled students for jobs by teaching them to handle money.

The value of money
Some of his students enroll not knowing what a check is or how to distinguish the values of quarters from dimes. "We use computer programs, some that feature voice responses, and personal coaching. And we overcome the mental obstacles," Hamblin says.

The nation's largest advocacy group for the mentally disabled, the Association of Retarded Citizens, recommends finding such efforts via local Goodwills, Salvation Army and United Way offices, as well as churches and government social services agencies.

To teach his pupils budgeting, Hamblin uses computer spreadsheets but tops expenditure columns with pictures -- rather than names -- of items they'll buy in the next month: words such as candy, soda, clothes, shoes, laundry soap, bus tickets.

Under each picture is the monthly amount that they're allowed to spend. When the pupil types a purchase amount into a column, a computerized voice tells him aloud how much money remains. "But sound attached to the keyboard isn't always necessary," Hamblin adds.

"My mentally disabled kids are completely at ease with computers, which are a godsend to my pupils whose motor skills are too poor for writing," he explains. "But I've noticed that my students whose disability leaves them with a first-grade reading level often feel very comfortable with math. They can calculate the purchase amounts easily. What they need is a visual reminder to keep a budget every day."

Picturing their finances
It's called sequencing by neurologists; using pictorial devices to guide the senile or retarded through daily, multiple-step tasks. Spore, an agency sponsored by the Allentown, Pa., Social Services Department, aids people whose mental disability brought them into a brush with the law, most often for check bouncing and credit card fraud.

The organization serves Alzheimer's patients, people with Down's syndrome and even those with manic-depressive disorders. A successful budgeting tool they use features a gigantic comic strip with the client's face pasted onto a figure buying an item, coming home, turning on a computer and typing in the amount. The picture board is kept pasted on a wall, where it can't be missed.

Computer pictures of bills and coins can help the disabled study the denominations. "We use a software program designed for that purpose called Dollars and Sense," says Jean Wonder of LINC, a Baltimore job-skills service for the mentally handicapped. "It's like a game with the computer voice praising them for a right answer. It's silent when they get it wrong. That's important, especially for the elderly person who's terrified at feeling his mental ability wane. No one like that will keep trying if they hear an annoying computer voice making fun of them."

A mental handicap can make an abstract concept such as checks or credit cards hard to grasp. Hamblin uses a huge, laminated check labeled with reminders: "Is your name spelled right? Do the numbers on these two lines match?" One student with an IQ of 55 finds a debit card far easier to handle than a check because it involves numbers, not writing.

People problems
Those helping the disabled to manage money stress that the biggest handicap is social, not mathematical. At LINC, students keep a picture book of items they must regularly buy, each labeled with the normal price. "That way, no charming scam artist can get them to buy a loaf of bread for $20 just because he has a warm smile," Wonder says.

Hamblin was even more direct. He pays his students weekly for their dry-cleaning work in cash. "Always, always, I hand them a little bit less than they were supposed to get," he says. "I told them this is how I'll teach them to count how much is owed them before they take one step away from a store or a boss. And it's how they get used to asking for what's owed in a confident voice."

He continues: "It's the hard life lesson I pound the hardest: Stand there even if there's a line of customers complaining about you. And people can be cruel. But no one mentally disabled should let them feel that they owe the world an apology -- or extra money -- for living life."


-- Posted: Jan. 29, 1999

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See Also
Fleet Financial
Service Credit Banking
Association of Retarded Citizens
More banking stories


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