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Burglars Steal Their Voices Too

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At the Cerebral Palsy Westside Activities Center, people with the debilitating muscular disease use computer-assisted communication devices to do things most folks take for granted.

Which was why the theft of a mere $6,500 worth of computer equipment is causing so much pain at the Venice Boulevard center.

Earlier this week, burglars stole the center’s three specially equipped computers that have served as lifelines for those with cerebral palsy, which causes damage to a part of the brain that controls and coordinates muscular action.

The loss leaves dozens of children and adults with no way to communicate and has thwarted a job-training program. The nonprofit organization, which purchased the computers with grant money only six weeks ago, lacks the funds to replace them.

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“We have a right to access to equipment and training so that we can be in the community just like anyone else,” said Sylvia Drzewiecki, 54, who uses a wheelchair and was learning to use the computer to form an advocacy group for the disabled. “We’ve been denied a good portion of that access and it can’t be replaced.”

Burglars stole two specially equipped computers that can be operated by voice commands, foot and head controls and a special mouse. They also took the computer that stored the 45 client files and records the organization is required to keep to apply for state and federal grants.

The predawn Tuesday burglary so upset those who use the center--the only computer center in the Los Angeles area specifically for those with cerebral palsy--that many didn’t come for their scheduled visits Wednesday.

Terry Lantz, executive director of the center, which is part of United Cerebral Palsy Los Angeles, said many people felt as though their homes had been broken into.

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Those who did show up said they were worried that their training programs would fall apart. Many said they were sad that plans to get hooked up to the Internet and meet pen pals next week had to be canceled and that without the center’s fax machine--also stolen--it might take longer to get their wheelchairs fixed or obtain assistance at home.

Joiond Davis, who uses a wheelchair, just began living on his own and was training to become a graphic artist, wondered what would become of his plans. Derrick Williams, 31, who enjoyed the center as a social outlet where the computers helped him write and read more easily, said he now had nothing to look forward to.

Paul Hassan couldn’t say anything.

Hassan, 31, cannot speak and has control only over the movement of his head. Though he uses a communication board, which allows him to express himself by pointing to words, Hassan was training to switch over to one of the three computers, which he could operate with a head switch.

“I am very hurt,” he said, speaking through the communication board. “I hope someone helps.”

The burglars broke in by bypassing the alarm system, tore through the wrought iron bars on the windows.

Most devastating to those at the center, said Lantz, is that the burglars had to know that they were stealing from the disabled. There is a large sign out front. And there are wheelchairs around the room.

“No one needs these computers as much as they do and now they’re gone,” said a teary-eyed Lantz. “It’s like we’ve gone back 20 years.”

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