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posted: 5/24/2013 1:03 PM

Creator of adaptive books for disabled children honors her daughter

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  • Video: Adapting Books

  • Rita Angelini, with 3-year-old Gabriel Gonzalez.

      Rita Angelini, with 3-year-old Gabriel Gonzalez.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • A sample of the adapted "One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish," by Dr. Seuss.

      A sample of the adapted "One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish," by Dr. Seuss.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • A bookshelf at the Prospect Heights Library is devoted to Angelini's books.

      A bookshelf at the Prospect Heights Library is devoted to Angelini's books.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

By Mackenzie Dye

Libraries have youth sections filled with the classics, such as Dr. Seuss and Clifford, which try to teach kids how to read and follow stories.

The reading options for children with certain special needs are limited. But a Prospect Heights woman has adapted several children's classics so disabled children can enjoy the same magical world as their able-bodied peers.

Rita Angelini started the project to help her daughter, Kiki, who had cerebral palsy. Kiki died on Christmas morning 2011 at the age of 12.

Working with Kiki's speech therapist, Jill Senner, Angelini came up with the idea to take classic children's books and change them in ways that would be usable for kids like her daughter.

Senner used augmentative communication, in this case alternative storytelling, to help Kiki follow the stories. Angelini was inspired to use this idea to take popular stories and make them readable for children with either a cognitive or physical disability.

She took regular books, cut them up, and adapted them to meet the needs for disabled children.

"Each book is in a binder, and the pages are laminated so they won't tear and are easier to turn," Angelini said. Each page also has a thick flipper made of weather stripping, so that a child can more easily grasp the page.

At the bottom of each page is a "communication strip" with four images, designed to help children learn how to read by recognition -- similar to nonverbal symbols those with a disability, like cerebral palsy, rely on to communicate.

"The pictures are color-coded to match the story," said Angelini, "The pink are action words, the yellow are nouns, the blue are descriptors, the green are prepositional phrases."

Those images are counterparts to the parts of speech, making the story more accessible to those with cognitive disabilities.

Assembling one book takes hours. Angelini creates the communication strips, and then volunteers laminate the book's pages, add the flippers, and put it in a binder.

"The books also help those with a physical motor skills problem, because although the child may be able to cognitively read, the books' physical structure makes it easier," said Angelini. Even an able-bodied child can use them, because the books also help those who are learning to read.

However, after Kiki died, Angelini put the books on hold, after creating them for about nine years.

So, to remember Kiki on the anniversary of her birthday this past April, family and friends came together to create books for other children currently in need.

"It was gathering and celebrating, and remembering her," Angelini said.

She wants parents of special needs children to know these books are available to help them, through local libraries.

"Parents aren't aware," she says, "Parents don't get to the library when their child has special needs. Also, I want to make teachers and aides aware of this possibility. They have this resource they can use."

Yvonne Anderson sees the value of the books. Her son, Gabriel Gonzalez, has cerebral palsy, and the two women bonded over their shared experiences, and the fact that Anderson has had trouble finding books for her son to read.

"It is really difficult to find adapted books, and it is also really expensive; to be able to find these at the library is a gift," Anderson said.

"The nice thing about the symbols is that (Gabriel) can use his eye gaze for what his choice is if he can't point with his finger," she said.

With Anderson's help, Angelini created 25 new books to donate to local libraries.

Currently, 40 of her books are at the Prospect Heights Public Library. Other libraries in the Northwest suburbs have 20 each, including Vernon Area, Des Plaines, Schaumburg Township, Arlington Heights, Elk Grove, Barrington Area and Skokie.

But Angelini points out that through reciprocal borrowing, parents can order them from any Northwest suburban library.

Her goals are simple -- she believes all kids should have the chance to love reading.

"It's for a child to be able to have a concrete book in their hands," she says, "flipping the pages just like every body else."

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