August 19, 2002
Anne Polta, Staff Writer
West Central Tribune
WILLMAR - Multiple sclerosis has robbed Bob Miller of most of the use of his arms and legs. But Miller, 55, can still read the daily newspaper on the Internet and write e-mails to his family and friends.
The cursor that flickers across the screen of his portable computer
is operated not by hand but by movements of his mouth. The same mouth-activated
sensor allows him to turn, tilt and move his battery-operated wheelchair.
The technology has helped Miller keep one of his most meaningful links with the rest of the world - the ability to communicate.
"To be able to speak and communicate with others is a very important part of your life, because if you don't have the ability to do this you have lost a part of your life," he said.
Electronics and software are increasingly making it possible for people with disabilities to read, write, communicate and stay mobile and independent.
There are computer screens that respond to a touch and software programs that "talk" in pictures.
Infrared sound-and-touch switches enable someone to operate a wheelchair or keyboard with motions as slight as the blink of an eye.
Special magnification helps those with visual impairments peruse the World Wide Web. Words on a computer screen can even be instantly translated into an electronic voice.
It has been a boon for Miller, an Atwater native and veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard who now lives at Bethesda Heritage Center in Willmar.
Miller still has his voice. He tires easily from talking, though. By the middle of the day his voice often starts to fade, and it's hard for him to complete a sentence.
A small microphone has helped by amplifying his voice. As the MS progresses, however, speaking is likely to become increasingly difficult.
When that day comes, Miller's portable computer and specialized software will let him continue to talk.
The sophisticated system he uses is the same as the one used by renowned British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, who also has MS.
Miller's laptop is a Panasonic Toughbook, a durable computer originally designed for U.S. Navy SEALs. His software is designed by Words+, a California company that specializes in communication aids for people with disabilities.
The entire system was put together and customized by wheelchair and technology experts from Rice Home Medical and the Gillette Technology Center.
It's operated by a sensor that looks like a drinking straw and works on the same principle. Using light and hard sips and puffs, Miller can type sentences and maneuver his way through e-mail and the Internet.
The sensor, which uses joystick scanning, allows him to move his wheelchair as well.
Communicating this way is a painstaking process. It can take Miller one minute to type one to two words.
Many features are programmed into the system, however, to make it easier for this special population to use.
For instance, the software contains shortcuts to commonly used words and phrases. When Miller types the letters "hh," the software displays the full sentence, "Hello, how are you?" on his laptop screen.
Individual users can add or subtract as many shortcuts as they need to create their own dictionary. Miller himself has 2,500 words and dozens of phrases automatically programmed, and he plans to add more.
"It takes quite a long time to type a response to a question but it will get answered," he said.
For users who can't speak, a software feature lets them turn their printed text into words spoken electronically.
Even the mouse has been adapted, with radar and cross-hair features that allow it to be moved quickly and accurately.
"There's a lot of different things you can do," said Miller, who says he's "still learning" to master the system.
"It takes me forever, just a small increment at a time. The thing is not to get frustrated, because if you get frustrated you want to give up," he said. "I felt I've never been one to give up."
Indeed, his persistence has enabled him to become plugged into the World Wide Web.
"I am really amazed with the Internet. It is really neat," he said. "I can read the paper, which is a big thing for me. I can communicate with different friends and people I know and my family."
If the technology has helped him, it can help other people, he said.
"I'm sure that there are people out there that it would be advantageous for... I would like others with handicaps to know that age should not be a factor in their decision to pursue any types of aids that could possibly help you to keep your independence."
© West Central Tribune 2002