Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 23 / APRIL 1982 / PAGE 98

Micros With The Handicapped

Marshall Curtis and Susan Semancik
The Delmarva Computer Club

Inability to communicate means isolation from people and experiences which otherwise would help a person develop intellectually, socially, personally, and vocationally. Most nonverbal people without motor-impairment can communicate through handwritten or typewritten messages, or by finger spelling and hand signs. Those with some motor skills can typically communicate by pointing at letters or symbols until a word or concept is understood by the person with whom communication is desired. The letters or symbols are generally arranged on a communications board, and pointing can be achieved by the hand or other part of the body, by a mouth-stick or similar device held in the mouth, or by using a flashlight or pointer attached to the user's head.

Besides being a time consuming means of communication, the use of a communications board also requires concentration by both the sender and receiver in order to remember the previous letters and symbols indicated in the message, since no record is automatically kept of the message unless the receiver writes it down as it is formed. These communications boards can be expensive and are not easily modified for individual needs. This is a natural area in which to use a microcomputer since menus of words, statements, or characters can be user-determined and placed in an arrangement determined by individual preference or frequency of use. Also, alternative input devices can be used to take advantage of whatever motor skills the person has. For example, eyeswitches, sip-and-puff switches, tongue-switches, cheek-switches, and light sensors can all be similarly connected through the input port of a microcomputer.

The Delmarva Computer Club has developed a communications program for the PET/CBM computer that uses both the keyboard and an alternative input device. The device is a light sensor that can be interfaced to the PET's parallel user port with items purchased from a local electronics store. This allows someone with limited motor control, such as someone with cerebral palsy, to move some part of his/her body over the sensor, which creates a shadow on the sensor. This shadow changes the voltage input to the computer, thus signaling a response which the computer will interpret just as if someone had hit the computer's keyboard.

The Figure shows the current words and characters list used in our program. Note that the characters list includes the alphabet, so that words can be formed even though they do not appear in the words list. Also note that a message has been formed and placed in reverse-field within the bottom four lines of the screen. The computer scans the menu by reverse-fielding or highlighting each column for a period of time determined by the user's initial response time. When an input signal is received on either the keyboard or an alternative device attached to the user port, the computer scans the choices within the current column being highlighted. An input received when a word or character of that column is highlighted causes that word or character to become part of the message being formed at the bottom of the screen.

Three other options besides the selection option are implemented in this current version of the program: one is used to erase the last entry in the message formed at the bottom of the screen; a second one is used to switch between the words list and the characters list so that time isn't wasted waiting for the computer to reach the desired part of the menu by the normal scanning sequence; and a third one is used to interactively increase or decrease the response time in which a selection can be made.

Developing An Individual Program

Certainly we could just publish this communications program and tell how to use it. But, because each potential user of the program has individual needs and requirements for communication, we feel that a single program could not have enough flexibility for widespread use. We will be exploring in a sequence of related articles how such a computer communications program can be developed. We've identified five fundamental areas in this communications program:

  1. How to pick a words list, statements list, and/or characters list, from which selections will be made to allow the level of communication desired. Also, how to place this list or lists on the computer's screen.
  2. How to indicate which element of the list is selected, including consideration of flexible response times.
  3. How to pick an alternative method of input, either using the keyboard differently, or selecting a device to match the motor skills of the user and interfacing the device to the computer.
  4. How to form a message as selections are made, and how to get attention paid to special messages.
  5. Besides selecting from a list, how to decide on other options in order to improve the speed* of communication, as well as the ease of computer use.

By dedicating a separate article to each of these five areas, we can concentrate on identifying alternatives to be considered in each area. For those readers who are in need of such a communications program, this will provide the means to create an individualized, tailor-made version. We will be allowing time in between articles for reader feedback. Tell us what requirements you, your friends, relations, or neighbors have for such a program. We will then pick the most requested option for that section to show how to incorporate it into the communications program. By carefully analyzing this process in the articles, it should make it possible for readers to do similar adjustments to the program for any other alternatives that meet their needs, as well as imitate the process for other computers. We would also like to have readers share their knowledge and opinions with us about any communications devices or programs so that other readers can be informed of their respective pros and cons.

The next article will be in two months, and will analyze the possibilities involved in picking the words, statements, or characters that become the menu from which communication is derived. The most requested arrangement will be implemented in the first part of the communications program. In exchange for $9.95, we would be glad to send our current version of the communications program for the PET/CBM computer that uses either the keyboard or user port input on four levels to anyone desiring it. This will help some readers who may want a completed program immediately and do not want to participate in an anticipated 12-month genesis of a tailor-made program. It may also be desirable by those readers who want a finished version of the program with which to follow along while we develop alternatives to the five major areas of the program. This way different options can be tried out with the whole program to evaluate what works best for individual circumstances.

But, this is not required. For the end result of the sequence of articles will be a communications program individualized by the greatest needs identified in each area. We hope this approach will accomplish what teaching someone to farm does in comparison to just providing that same person with produce. The teaching method is definitely more time-consuming and difficult, but we feel the end result of helping people with the creation of their own solutions is a desirable and worthwhile endeavor.

The Delmarva Computer Club
P.O. Box 36
Wallops Island, VA 23337