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DoD Launches Web Site for Special Needs Families

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 25, 2001 – Need to know if your next duty station can accommodate a handicapped family member? If so, you can now turn to the Internet for information.

DoD's Special Needs Network, a Web site for military families with special medical or educational needs, went on line Jan. 24, 2001, at mfrc.calib.com/snn.

Rebecca Posante, a program analyst at DoD's Office of Educational Opportunity, initiated the site to provide access to information and resources. She said she told Web designers to keep things simple.

"Our people have a hard time downloading, especially overseas," she explained. "I've gone into a couple Web sites that are so intensive that I just turned them off."

So don't expect elaborate graphics or streaming video, she said. The site features simple design and straightforward point-and-click access to information. Menu options include assignment coordination, federal and state programs, and health and education. Other menu topics include relocation, community support, advocacy and resources.

Posante said the site would help service members and their families research assignments and hook up with care coordinators and service providers. She called "special needs" an umbrella term for a wide range of services -- everything from assignment and coordination, to family support, to special education.

DoD has no formal special needs program, but the military puts a great deal of effort into families with special needs, Posante told the American Forces Press Service. For instance, each service has an Exceptional Family Member Program to coordinate assignments and to provide information and referrals to families with special needs, she noted.

"The services take both educational and medical needs into consideration when assigning families overseas," she said. "For example, if a service member going overseas has a wife who's in a wheelchair, we would try to find a place where facilities are wheelchair-accessible. In some overseas locations, U.S. facilities might be, but community facilities might not be."

By the same token, military officials would try to assign a service member with a blind child to a location overseas that has a teacher who specializes in working with visually impaired children. Each service has at least one such location, Posante said.

For stateside assignments, the military Exceptional Family Member programs are concerned mainly with medical needs, she said.

Unfortunately, available support varies from base to base because no standard exists, she said. Posante intends the Special Needs Network to complement available services and to help those who work with special needs families to identify information and resources.

The new Web site also provides access to a confidential members' network where families and service providers can exchange information. Users must register by providing their names, e-mail addresses and "screen" names that identify their messages and allow other members to respond.

"The members' network will allow people to raise issues with others who might have the kind of information we may never have. Like, 'I'm moving to Fort Lewis, Wash., and I need a dentist for my 5-year-old autistic child.'

While most people wouldn't know any dentists with that specialty, another family in the same boat might, she said. Or someone with a Downs Syndrome child might be moving to an area and want to know about local advocacy groups and support programs, she remarked.

Site visitors can also use the members' network to ask another family with special needs to serve as "tour guides" when they relocate. "It's always your decision whether to share your e-mail with other members," Posante stressed.

The network will automatically send interested members news about various issues. "People will be able to subscribe so that they will be alerted if something new comes up," she said.

A Web section on state and federal programs will include requirements for such programs as Supplemental Security Income, food stamps and WIC. "We want to link to other Web sites that can answer questions," she said. "That's something I hope is going to grow, because even federal Web sites don't have the state-specific information that we might want."

In her quest for a site that's fast and easy to use, Posante said, the links don't just go to other agencies' Web home pages. Instead, links jump directly to the information pages that users request.

Eventually, Posante said, she hopes to include a section for civilian personnel. "Say you were considering going overseas and one of your family members has multiple sclerosis. The job announcement, perhaps, might direct you to this Web site. You could learn about the health care available at various overseas locations," she said.

She called the Web site a work in progress. "I think families are going to tell us about services that we're not aware of and that we can link to," she said. "It will just keep growing."

In addition to the members' network, visitors can use an e-mail form on the site to send recommendations, links and information.

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