Six-year-old Katherine Van Orden is trapped inside her tiny, delicate body, bound to a small blue wheelchair that allows only minimal participation in the world around her.
She understands most of what goes on in her class at the special Ruth Parker Eason School in Millersville, even though she cannot speak. Spastic paralysis because of cerebral palsy keeps her elbows bent tightly upward and allows little control over her muscles -- other than those used to form a smile.
Doctors have yet to find a cure for her condition. But technologyhas found a way to improve her ability to communicate. A scanner device would allow her to make certain movements and trigger a preprogrammed child's voice that would vocalize her commands. This would enable Katherine to hold conversations and participate fully in class.
The voice she has been missing so long, however, remains elusive, tied up in a budgetary squabble between the military and county over whoshould pay for the scanner device.
Katherine is one of 11,604 children from military families living in Anne Arundel County, of which 371 are enrolled in special education services. A total of 2,609 of these children live at Fort Meade, with 213 receiving special help.
Many of those families are stationed in the county to take advantageof services that have gained national attention among military officials. Anne Arundel County and Fort Lewis, Wash., are the top preferences when assignments are granted to families in the military's Exceptional Family Member program.
Faced with an $8 million budget deficit this year, school system officials say they can't afford to be purchasing new equipment. And the family's military insurance will not pick up the cost without proof that the county -- or some other agency-- is unable to pay for it.
The battle could take as long as a year to settle.
"Katherine is a wonderful child who, without a way to communicate, may become disinterested," warns Marie Fries, her teacher at Eason. "We work so hard to keep that from happening, not to have her just sit there and smile. But if she can't find a way to tell people what she wants, that her diaper needs changing or what she wants to watch on TV, she may slip into passivity."
For now, Katherine communicates with her teacher largely by staring. In class, Fries wears signs on her shoulders with the words 'yes' and 'no.'
"Look at my shoulders, Katherine," she urges. "Tell me your answer."
Answering isn't easy; the young girl must concentrate to hold her head steady.
Katherine is learning at the level of a 3-year-old, doing better than many of her fellow students who can talk and walk. Fries envisions Katherine getting a job working with computers someday, but fears her progress has been thwarted this year because she is bored.
Katherine's father, 35-year-old Air Force Capt. Brad Van Orden, said he appreciates the military benefits that have picked up many of the hefty costs associated with his daughter's condition. From the day Kathy Van Orden gave birth to Katherine at Wright-Patterson Air ForceBase in Dayton, Ohio, military insurance benefits have been a major economic factor in the family's life.
"Coming to Anne Arundel County, I was told that there were good doctors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center," says Brad Van Orden, who has moved his family three timessince Katherine's birth. "We knew that the area had good schools."
"I'm very happy with her school," Katherine's mother says. "She's had the same teacher and therapists since she started going there. They know her."
For the last three years, Katherine has attended a half-day program at Eason, where she receives both classroom instruction and physical therapy. The latter is especially important since gaining control of her muscles will increase her ability to use devices like the scanner, which is operated via a beam of light directed by the user's head. Plus, it is vital that Katherine learn to relax, thus reducing the risk of further medical problems. Already, she has undergone stomach surgery for tight muscles that can cause involuntary regurgitation and choking.
But the Van Ordens' happiness with their school doesn't necessarily extend to the school system. Like many military families, they are upset with a decision made two years ago to send children of military families living on Fort Meade to another special school, Marley Glen in Glen Burnie, regardless of their proximity to Ruth Eason.
County school officials say the move was made to head off projected overcrowding. The Van Ordens have their doubts.
"Genuinely, I feel they are biased against people in the military," says Van Orden, who moved his family to Millersville so Katherine could stay enrolled at Eason. "Moving people from Fort Meade (arbitrarily and in one group) was easy and convenient for them, even if they were moving students further from their homes. It creates instability in the child's progress. Then they go picking on us. That's extremely insensitive."
"I was so upset about it, I went into labor early with my youngest (20-month-old Karen)," his wife says."
Since Kathy Van Orden must work an evening part-time job to make ends meet, her husband cares for Katherine, 20-month-old Karen and 4-year-old Eric by himself during those hours.
During the day, when he's at work, she has the responsibility.
Every morning, Kathy Van Orden pushes Katherine's wheelchair to the corner and waits for the school bus, allthe while holding Karen in her arms, keeping an eye on Eric and keeping the family's dog, Foz-E-Bear, out of the neighbors' yards. At noon, when Katherine returns home, the scene is repeated. In the evening, her husband takes over.
"We don't have to worry about stimulus, she gets a lot of that," Kathy Van Orden says as their small black dog takes a seat in Katherine's lap. Her mother guides Katherine's handto pet him; the muscles in the child's right hand relax somewhat.
Looking at her daughter, Kathy Van Orden says she has learned to cope with her initial worries. Now, the family is focused on where they go from here -- both in terms of their daughter's progress and their next military move.
"You just learn to deal with it," she says. "It's something we live with everyday. I don't know any different."
TUESDAY: "Facing the Challenges" concludes with a look at what the future holds for special education in Anne Arundel County.