Enabling the Disabled: Technologies for People with Handicaps

By Wagner, Cynthia G. | The Futurist, May-June 1992 | Go to article overview

Enabling the Disabled: Technologies for People with Handicaps


Wagner, Cynthia G., The Futurist


A search for technologies to assist people with disabilities turned up a talking mouse, flexible keyboards, and a program for creating music.

A computer engineer who has been profoundly deaf since birth found it frustrating to use the traditional telecommunications device for the deaf (TDD), since its one-line readouts are slow and cannot be stored. And he couldn't communicate with colleagues or anyone else who didn't have a TDD unless they used a telephone operator as a translator.

So Dillip Emmanuel built a better telecommunications device - one that turns a personal computer into an all-purpose communications center. His MIC300i modem and FullTalk[TM] software allow the user to receive, record, review, and send telephone calls through a PC. The package includes telephone directories, auto-redial functions, and other customized features, many of which promise to make it beneficial even to nondeaf users. The package could also be a boon to the many companies that hope to expand their services to deaf customers. Emmanuel now heads a company that manufactures and markets his invention.

A biomedical engineer working on brain research at the National Institutes of Health wanted to create an inexpensive learning device to help his young, severely retarded son to communicate and develop thinking skills. So Andrew Mitz went down to his basement and built a simple electronic recorder and playback device - a pair of black boxes onto which he attached photographs of a toy or any other object the child might want. He named the device WeeTalk[TM]. Touching one of the photos activates the device to "say" the name of the object, which cues a parent or teacher to bring the desired object. Mitz found an almost instant market for WeeTalk, which he continues to build in his basement and now sells for $185 apiece.

What Emmanuel and Mitz - and hundreds of other inventors - realized is that necessity is still the mother of invention. And for meeting the needs of the 43 million disabled persons in the United States, computers may have become the "midwife" of invention.

More than 700 ideas emerged from a recent competition for "enabling" technologies. The goal of the Johns Hopkins University Search for Computing Applications to Assist Persons with Disabilities was "to apply computer creativity to help people with disabilities overcome barriers to communication, movement, education, or employment," according to Paul L. Hazan, an administrator at Johns Hopkins' Applied Physics Laboratory, who directed the project. Andrew Mitz's WeeTalk and Dillip Emmanuel's telecommunications modem were just two of 30 regional winners whose new enabling technologies were on display for two days at the Smithsonian Institution.

Many of the inventions were modifications that make computers easier for disabled people to use, such as the Unicorn Smart Keyboard, developed by Arjan S. Khalsa of Richmond, California. The keyboard, which took top prize ($10,000) at the Johns Hopkins Search, is a flexible, affordable alternative to standard computer keyboards.

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