Classic Computer Magazine Archive CREATIVE COMPUTING VOL. 10, NO. 9 / SEPTEMBER 1984 / PAGE 180

Computing for the handicapped. Shel Talmy.

Computing For The Handicapped

This month, I want to catch up on numerous items about computing for the handicapped. The field is as active as mainstream computing, and a multitude of products has entered the market at about the same time. This is especially gratifying to the handicapped user, who, as recently as a few months ago had virtually nothing with which to enhance his quality of life, or increase his potential for earning a livelihood.

The computers, peripherals, and software that are now available are making these dreams a reality. A door has been opened to the marketplace, and although the opening is small, the hinges are oiled and the portal is poised to be flung wide.

The products currently at hand cover the entire spectrum of uses for the handicapped, from giving a voice to the severely disabled to providing a means for the visually impaired to achieve the independence they seek via computer. And products on the horizon look even more promising.

A Voice

Dr. John Eulenberg is the director of the Artificial Language Laboratory in the Computer Science Department of Michigan State University in East Lansing. He has been working for more than 20 years in the combined fields of computers and linguistics, pioneering methods of vocal output for the severely speech disabled.

I attended the banquet given at the San Diego Computer Fair, at which Dr. Eulenberg gave the keynote address relating to his work in this field. I was particularly interested because I had led a symposium on speech synthesis at the same convention.

Jim Brooks languished for the first 23 years of his life, unable to speak, the victim of spastic athetoid cerebral palsy. The words he attempted to utter were unintelligible, and because he was unable to communicate, he was thought retarded. Only his parents knew the truth.

Dr. Eulenberg saw in him a man in need of a voice with which to express himself: he could tell that Jim Brooks had plenty to say. Eulenberg led a team of scientists to develop a system that Brooks operates with his right foot, the only part of his body over which he has control.

A computer system is attached to the wheelchair from which Brooks uses his foot to manipulate a joystick, enabling him to type out words or parts of words. He can see what he is typing on an adjustable eye level 20-character alphanumeric LED screen. When he is finished typing, Brooks commands the computer to speak for him through a voice synthesizer.

The system, called the VOCA (Voice Output Communication Aid) consists of three components: a power distribution unit, a printer/display unit, and an 80-position foot pedal. The system draws on the same batteries which supply power to the wheelchair motor. The pedal swings in an arc from left to right or up and down within a 10 by 8 matrix that gives Brooks 80 positions from which to choose. These positions correspond to single letters, commonly used words and phrases, and control functions.

Once he was able to communicate, Brooks was found to have an outstanding mind and is studying computer science and psychology. One of the most moving moments that arose out of his new found ability of "speak' was the invocation he gave in front of the Michigan legislature that earned him a spontaneous standing ovation from the assemblage.


In a similar vein, S.A.M. (Software Automatic Mouth) from Don't Ask Software is a program that generates speech. It requires a digital-to-analog converter and works differently on the three computers for which it is available. S.A.M. for the Apple II is $124.95. A digital-to-analog converter is supplied with it. The price for the Atari and the Commodore 64 is $59.95 as no additional hardware is necessary.

Joe Laughran of Baraboo, WI, like Jim Brooks, was unable to speak because of severely disabling cerebral palsy. Supplied with an Atari computer and the S.A.M. program, he too found voice, and for the first time a sharp mind was able to express itself.

Don't Ask Software is located at 2265 Westwood Blvd., Suite B-150, Los Angeles, CA 90064. (213) 477-4516.


By now, it is safe to assume that practically everybody involved with computers has heard about, read about or used the KoalaPad from Koala Technologies Corporation, a graphics device that allows you to draw freehand or execute perfect circles, lines, squares, et al. with brush strokes and color options. As an input device, it can also be used as a game controller that is especially useful for the handicapped person with motor disabilities.

A six-year-old from Minnesota named Tommy is afflicted with cerebral palsy. Tommy has full range motion, but very little fine motor control. The touch table surface of the KoalaPad gave the boy enough stability for his hand so that he could use his finger to control the action game Choplifter. More important, it opens up a whole range of possibilities for Tommy and others with similar problems. The KoalaPad, though not designed for the handicapped, is a good example of an available produce that can be turned into a useful tool with a little improvisation.

The KoalaPad Touch Table with Micro Illustrator software, available for the Apple, IBM PC, Commodore 64 and Vic 20, and the Atari 400 and 800 costs $125, from Koala Technologies Corp., 3100 Patrick Henry Dr., Santa Clara, CA 95050.


Here is a neat item for the visually impaired individual who is or wants to be a gourmet cook. Rop the Computer Chef Cookbook and Recipe File from Software Toolworks into your computer and listen to the voice synthesizer tell you about recipes that range from Chicken Mole to Tofu Quiche and Double Fudge Brownies to Strawberry Pizza. The Computer Chef, very moderately priced at $29.95, is a sophisticated database management program that allows you to search for recipes by title, keyword, or ingredient.

The program also has a very nice scaling feature that will refigure amounts for as few or as many people as you have to feed. There are more than 70 recipes that come with the program, and you can add your own with a text editor. An additional disk of 200 recipes costs $19.95, and you can get 100 of the best recipes from Wok Talk for $29.95.

This is a quality program from a company with an excellent reputation. It is available in CP/M and MS-DOS formats. Software Toolworks is located at 15233 Ventura Blvd., Suite 1118, Sherman Oaks, CA 91403. (213) 986-4885.

These are just a few of the numerous items that make life easier for the handicapped person. I will bring as many as possible to your attention in the succeeding months.

Photo: Talking foot. Born with cerebral palsy, Jim Brooks had to wait until he was 23 years old before he could speak. Now 26, Jim works as a student researcher in the Artificial Language Laboratory, programming computers to allow other individuals to speak and write. He is also a student at M.S.U., expecting to receive his Bachelor of Science multi-disciplinary degree in computer science and linguistics in 1984.

Photo: Tim Dooley, a student in Woodstock, NY, tests an experimental prototype of his optical hand operated joystick. Tim's system is based on the Jim Brooks system.