More MS news articles for Dec 2001

Enabling the Seriously Disabled: Technology Creates Solutions

Nov 2001
Samten Williams, Medical Writer

Imagine the frustration of having a creative impulse trapped inside you. This used to be the everyday experience of people with severe disabilities. No more. Today, people with severe disabilities can use assistive device technology to communicate wisdom, creativity, and joy in life.

Consider Stephen Hawking, the astrophysicist who suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Hawking's computer is mounted to his wheelchair. A hand switch allows him to turn the computer on and off without anyone's help. This switch also gives him access to software that creates text through shortcuts. Text-to-voice software converts his text into speech.

Using this technology, Hawking has written a book and scientific papers. He has given lectures, in person and on television. His work, he says, has been well received. "I think that is in a large part due to the quality of the speech synthesizer," says Hawking. "One's voice is very important. If you have a slurred voice, people are likely to treat you as mentally deficient."

Another Voice

Michael Williams, who has had cerebral palsy since birth, agrees. In the documentary video Enable, Williams says, "Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Public tend to view people with speech disabilities as two carrots short of a stew."

Williams, 62, helps dispel this stereotype of incompetence. He is the first augmentative communicator--the term used in the disabled community for those who use speech devices to communicate--to serve on the Society for Augmentative Alternative Communicationís executive board.

The way Williams creates text is by pressing icons, or pictures, on a keyboard device. This text is then "spoken" or printed on the built-in printer.

Headpointing Access

Hank Torres, a quadriplegic, did not lose his ability to speak in the accident that disabled him at age 17. Despite his immobility, Torres earned an engineering degree and went on to a programming career at IBM. Now 45 and retired, Torres has designed a piece of technology that allows him to use his computer.

Torres uses a commercially-made infrared mouse that sits atop a computer and tracks a tiny reflector dot worn on his eyeglasses. This mouse gets its click and double-click functions from a headset device that has a small tube attached, like a straw. A sip from the straw is one click, and a puff into the straw is a double click.

Torres wanted more control over his computer than this system gave him. So, he designed a fiber optic headset device that uses eye twitches to control the straw device mentioned above. A left eye twitch signals a left mouse click and a right eye twitch signals a right mouse click. This device works well, he says, and he is trying to market it.

Like everyone else, Torres explores his own unique interests online. Torres promises a caller, "I can make you some money" with the online investments he follows. Another interest he has is the sound of England's Big Ben clock tower, which he downloaded. As the clock chimes in London, he can hear it on his computer in Texas.

Brain-Body Access

Stuart Sharp's niece, Kelly, has cerebral palsy and multiple physical disabilities. To get a picture of the extent of her disabilities, in the summer of 1999 Kelly was 11 years old and weighed only 33 pounds.

"Kelly has been really quite inert for most of her life." Sharp explains. One reason for her inertia, he believes, is that Kelly has not been able to communicate interactively with those around her.

Deeply moved by his niece's condition, Sharp searched for an assistive device that could help Kelly communicate. "Prowling around on the Internet," he says, he found a device that transmits brain waves, eye movements, and face muscle movements as computer commands.

The first time his niece used this system, Sharp says, "She indicated that she understood something was happening. The second time she used the system, she quieted down very quickly and immediately focused on trying to work with the system."

Kelly's challenge with this technology is to customize basic responses, like "yes," or "no," in coordination with eye blinking. Sharp says that Kelly and her mother, a special education teacher, have found a reliable "yes" response; they are still working on a "no."

Paying for Technology

The cost for most assistive-device technology is in the $2,000 range. Add to that the price of a computer, and technology access can seem prohibitive for a person with disabilities.
There are funding mandates, however. Russ Holland, program director of the Alliance for Technology Access says, "The public education system is responsible for providing funding for assistive technology and its support for all children with disabilities. The vocational rehabilitation system is responsible for the same for all adults who need the technology to work toward a vocational goal." Holland adds, "These are legal mandates rather than grant or charity resources."


To find disability resource agencies in your state, check with the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA).

ABLEDATA is a federally funded project for information on disabilities and technology. Their Web site includes a comprehensive database search on technologies for all disabilities.

Alliance for Technology Access connects children and adults with disabilities to technology tools.

1700 North Moore Street, Suite 1540
Arlington, VA 22209.
(703) 524-6686

8401 Colesville Road, Suite 200
Silver Spring, MD 20910
(800) 227-0216

Alliance for Technology Access
2175 East Francisco Blvd., Suite L
San Rafael, CA 94939
(415) 455-4575

Samten Williams, BSN, RN, is a nurse writer and writes on all aspects of healthcare.

Reviewer: Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Reviewed for medical accuracy by physicians at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), Harvard Medical School. BIDMC does not endorse any products or services advertised on this Web site.

Source: Medscape Health

Copyright: © 2000-2001 Medscape, Inc.