Mark of an achiever

National organization recognizes efforts of 12-year-old boy who has cerebral palsy

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According to his mother, Mark Steidl, 12, is a pretty typical kid.

He loves music and being outside with friends near his Highland Park home. Mark is an honor student who taught himself to read at age 4 and has composed music.

Typical? How about extraordinary?

Mark has cerebral palsy, which robs him of the physical ability to sing or hold a musical instrument.

But it does not prevent him from being a high achiever. On Friday, Mark and his parents, Tina Calabro and David Steidl, celebrated in Boston when he received the "Yes I Can!" award from the Council for Exceptional Children, an international organization, at its annual convention and expo.

A total of 29 awards in nine categories were presented to youths with disabilities who have excelled. Mark was one of two students honored in the technology category.

Being able to skate

Tina Calabro wanted to share her love of ice skating with her son, Mark, who has a significant and rare form of cerebral palsy.

She approached the staff at Children's Institute of Pittsburgh and ask about the possibility of adapting her son's gait-trainer -- a walker-like device used by children with motor disabilities -- to accommodate his added height while wearing skates.

Therapists there met the challenge. Mark can "stand" in an upright position in skates, with Velcro straps holding him for support. His mother said he enjoys skating at the Schenley Park rink.

--By Laurie Bailey

"He received [that] award because of his use of technology in all aspects of his life," Ms. Calabro said of her son, a seventh-grader at Carmalt Academy of Science and Technology, a Pittsburgh public school in Overbrook.

Lynda Van Kuren, of the Council, said that children with special needs are not often recognized at their own schools' awards programs.

"This award makes people aware [of their abilities] and gives them recognition," she said.

Since birth, Mark has lived with athetoid cerebral palsy, a relatively rare form of the disease -- about 10 percent of cerebral palsy patients have it. He has quadriplegia, meaning he has no use of his arms or legs and has difficulty with balance and coordination.

His speech is affected in that he cannot make clear sounds. Swallowing problems require him to use a feeding tube, Ms. Calabro said.

"He has no cognitive impairment -- no learning disabilities," she said of Mark, who has always been fully integrated into a normal classroom setting.

When he was 3, Mark learned to use a DynaVox electronic communication device, which he still uses to communicate with others. Mark operates a laptop computer attached to his power wheelchair by touching a switch with his head.

He has attended Carmalt since kindergarten. His mother described the school as a "state-of-the art" facility for special needs students.

Designed to be an open space learning environment in the 1970s, Carmalt, with ramps throughout, is a good setting for kids in wheelchairs.

"We were always pushing the envelope," said Ken Kwasniewski, assistive technology coordinator at Carmalt at that time.

Mark's worksheets were scanned into the computer, allowing him to fully participate in class. Mr. Kwasniewski remembered connecting a printer to Mark's communication device so that, as a first-grader, he could print his work to hang on a refrigerator as other students do.

"Mark demonstrated the personality and flexibility that children have," said Mr. Kwasniewski, adding that while learning to use his new equipment, Mark never became frustrated.

When he was in third grade, when writing and reading from textbooks became more common, Ms. Calabro said the school district made sure Mark's books were scanned into his laptop, which was provided by the district. The covers of his books appeared as icons on the screen.

The Pittsburgh school district funds this effort provided by Systems Imaging, a private company on the North Side.

In the years since, software programs for writing and research have been added to the system.

"Power Point presentations are very easy with this setup," Ms. Calabro said.

Homework assignments have increased in recent years. Mark can load schoolwork onto a jump drive to use in his home computer. He also is able to e-mail questions to his teachers.

"Since he can't speak, that is really a huge thing for him," she added.

When he was about 6, it became clear that Mark had an interest in music and started getting involved in community children's theater groups. He attended Point Park University's Radio Theater summer camp and performed in the Children's Institute production of the "Shoemaker and the Elves," in which all the performers used communication devices.

This summer, he will attend the Woodlands Music Camp in Marshall for the sixth time.

"He loves musical theater," Ms. Calabro said.

His parents decided to arrange music lessons for Mark, but had to find a teacher with training in special education and electronic methods.

"We didn't even know exactly what we were asking a person to teach," Ms. Calabro said.

With the help of the Hope Academy of Music and the Arts in East Liberty, they found someone who did know. Jeremy Sment, then a graduate student at Duquesne University and a music composition teacher, introduced Mark to Sibelius software in January 2007.

The program is used by professional composers to write scores. Unable to play an instrument, Mark began to compose music. By May, he finished his first piece, "American Tour." It was performed at a spring recital by music teachers Suzanne U. Polak and Elisa Mata at East Liberty Presbyterian Church.

"It's a very simple song, but it's a very beautiful song," Ms. Calabro said, adding that led Mark's teachers to nominate him for the "Yes I Can!" award. Mark is now composing a sonata

Ms. Calabro credits much of the young man's success in the classroom to the staff, principal, students and aide, Barbara McGee.

"He loves his school and classmates. They are terrific," she said.

Laurie Bailey is a freelance writer. First Published April 10, 2008 4:00 AM


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