Programs enable disabled
to handle money and finances
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
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
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
"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
The value of
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
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,"
"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."
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
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.
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,"
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
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