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Computers open new worlds to disabled

(ran NP, TP editions)

Fred Doerr lost the use of his arms and legs after a swimming accident 21 years ago.

Since then he has written an autobiography, composed music and plugged into the outside world _ thanks to a computer in his Woodlynne, N.J., home.

Doerr wears an electronic device on his forehead to "talk" to the machine. He points his head to move an arrow on the screen. Then, by sucking in once or twice on a small tube _ just like sipping a straw _ he "clicks" to perform the function.

For his composing, he has the image of a piano keyboard on the screen and can manipulate the keyboard by using his headpiece and sipper.

Doerr is one of thousands of disabled people who have used computer technology to return to the mainstream of modern life. They are connecting with people through online services, managing their households and developing new work skills through sophisticated computer technology and software.

Thomas Hutchinson, professor of engineering at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, has designed a computer that assists quadriplegics who can't move their heads.

Hutchinson's device lets computer users issue commands by simply looking at a specific point on the screen. A transmitter in the computer sends out a beam trained on the user's eye. When the beam bounces off the retina, its angle tells the computer exactly where the user is looking _ for instance, at a command to "save file." The computer receives the signal just as if a mouse and clicker did the signaling. The user can write messages, ring for a nurse or turn appliances on and off.

Dr. Bud Rizer, director of the Comprehensive Assistive Technology Center at Mississippi State University in Starkville, said less severely disabled people can use voice-activated computers.

Rizer noted that the necessary software for voice activation is now generally affordable. "Three or four years ago, you would have paid $3,000 to $4,000 for software which now costs $700."

"The computer fits your voice pattern into its 60,000-word vocabulary," Rizer explained. "It can take a word like "hello' and run it through a spectrum analyzer and make a digital representation of your sound."

Carol Fuhrer, an occupational therapist at the National Center for Disability Services in Albertson, N.Y., said a computer can enable the disabled to keep jobs that they would have had to relinquish just a few years ago.

"I am working with somebody who was an investigator," says Fuhrer. "She has multiple sclerosis and is pretty much physically handicapped. She cannot really activate anything. So, she is going to be getting a voice-activated computer."

Rizer offers another example. "A man who lost both arms, an electrical lineman, operates the computer by chin and is now back at work at the electric company."

Computers are now so sophisticated that, as Jennifer Schlagle at Magee Rehabilitation in Philadelphia points out, they can "open doors, close curtains, use the phone, control light."

For example, the menu on the screen might list radio, lights, television or air conditioner _ machines to turn on or off. The user can select a function through a head transmitter, by voice or with a small keyboard in the case of those who have some use of their hands.

Once the menu item is selected, a signal is sent from the computer to the specially wired appliance.

Dr. Michael Matthews, professor of neurology at the Medical College of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and Dr. Eliot Cole of the Institute for Cognitive Prosthetics, wonder if computers may go beyond just enabling patients with disabilities to do more things.

They believe that computers, in giving patients different ways to perform tasks, may actually help restore functions lost due to brain injuries by teaching a different part of the brain to do the same job.

Joey Wallace, a policy analyst with the Virginia Assistive Technology System, points out another benefit computers have for disabled users. When they use computers to communicate, their disability can remain unseen and irrelevant.

"When you are on the line talking to others, no one knows necessarily who you are," Wallace said. "You are an equal participant."

Beyond letting disabled people perform tasks once utterly beyond their reach, the computer can also help lift the isolated out of the doldrums.