The Gate        

High-tech devices have revolutionized disabled people's lives
Peter Sinton, Chronicle Senior Writer
Wednesday, July 26, 2000
2000 San Francisco Chronicle

Since the Americans with Disabilities Act became law exactly 10 years ago, the phrase ``assistive technology'' has become a common phrase and a booming business.

In addition to the installation of sidewalk curb cuts and specially designed access ramps, lifts and bathrooms in public places, a wide array of electronic devices and other equipment has been designed to help those with varying degrees of disabilities lead more-enjoyable and productive lives.

For example, disabled people can use wireless devices controlled by head or tongue movements or touch screens to operate power wheelchairs, run computers, use the phone, open doors and operate most everything else in the appropriately outfitted home or office.

In addition, voice-recognition and text- reading systems allow the visually and physically impaired to take similar control of their environments. Ceiling-mounted tracked transport systems and lifting slings can ferry the physically disabled from bed to bath. And prosthetic devices mimic the motions of the limbs they replace.

``Technology has been a godsend,'' said Steven Tingus, public policy director of the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers in Sacramento who suffers from a rare form of muscular dystrophy and uses an array of devices including power wheelchair, ventilator and voice-recognition software. ``It has provided those with disabilities more independence at home and work without relying on personal attendants.''

``Technology has revolutionized the lives of many people with disabilities,'' added Mary Lou Breslin, founder of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund in Berkeley. ``The advances have allowed people to live independently, to work and participate in their communities.'' Breslin should know. Stricken with polio when she was 12, she now makes use of a variety of devices, starting with her sleek, lightweight Quickie Model P200 motorized wheelchair that turns on a dime. ``The days of bulky, heavy, one-size-fits-all wheelchairs are over,'' she said.

Breslin also loves her Dodge van that is specially equipped with a ramp that lets her ride her wheelchair right to the driver's position and lock it to the floor. She also uses a ceiling-mounted lift to get in and out of bed more easily but said ``the most empowering advances are probably computer and telecommunications technology.''


The proliferation of products to assist the disabled has triggered a business boom. ``This is a growth market,'' said Richard Chandler, the former chief executive officer of Sunrise Medical in Los Angeles County, who recently raised venture capital to buy companies that make technology for the visually impaired.

``In the United States alone, there are 2 million blind people and 10 million with low vision or progressive loss of vision.''

Called Freedom Scientific, Chandler's startup is backed by $30 million from Summit Partners and Patricof & Co. Ventures, with $20 million more committed.

The startup has been on a buying binge. Last month, it bought Arkentone, a Moffett Field company started in 1989 by Silicon Valley software entrepreneur Jim Fruchterman to bring the benefits of optical character recognition technology to blind people.

The company's so-called Open Book, which uses a computer's sound card to read aloud any scanned material from books to bills, has more than 25,000 users in 60 countries and is one of the leading products for the visually impaired. .

In April, Chandler's San Diego County company bought two other companies that assist blind people in computer jobs. One was Florida's Henter-Joyce, a leader in computer screen reader technology; the other was Maryland's Blazie Engineering, a developer of personal digital assistants for the visually impaired.

The products of both companies range in price from $795 for a screen reader to $11,000 for a sophisticated Braille display mounted below a conventional keyboard that translates text on the screen into corresponding Braille letters and numbers.

Many entrepreneurs get into the assistive technology business literally by accident.

For example, Ted Henter, who founded one of the companies just purchased by Freedom Scientific, was one of the world's top 10 motorcycle racers in 1978 when a car accident left him blind. He then studied computer science, started Henter- Joyce in 1987 and developed a program that reads the content of a computer screen through specialized software and simulated speech synthesizers.

Van Phillips, who lost a foot in a waterskiing accident, started Flex-Foot in Orange County in 1984. The company produces 10 models of superstrong, flexible carbon fiber and titanium lower-limb prosthetic devices that provide surprisingly natural heel motion and gait.


Marilyn Hamilton revolutionized the wheelchair industry in Fresno in 1980, a year after a spinal injury caused by a hang-gliding accident left her a paraplegic.

Using high-tech bicycle and synthetic fabric materials found in hang gliders, she brought high-technology and fashion to the wheelchair world. In 1986, her Fresno company was acquired by Sunrise Medical, and her Quickie line of sport and power wheelchairs now accounts for about 30 percent of the publicly traded company's $660 million in annual sales.

Then there is Vernon Cox, quadriplegic as a result of childhood polio, who was searching a decade ago for a speech recognition system to replace the mouth stick he used to tap each computer key. He heard about some promising technology from Dragon Systems in Newton, Mass., but needed someone to make it part of an entire computer system.

He turned to San Rafael entrepreneur Marty Tibor, and the project transformed both their lives.

Tibor had long been interested in science and technology. Growing up in Chicago, he got a chemistry set when he was 5 and was operating computers for a Midwest stock exchange by the time he was 16. In 1980, he was running Synapse Adaptive, a San Rafael business computer consulting company.

Then Cox came to him for help. Tibor recalls that the first voice-recognition system he put together for Cox cost about $9,000 and was far less reliable than current equipment that costs about $600.

Thanks to new technology, Cox is still active at 73. As a team leader at the Marin Independent Living Center in San Rafael, he uses voice commands to work at his computer, send e-mail and conduct Internet research. ``It's a lot easier than the mouth stick, which took so much time,'' he said.

After getting hooked on technology that could help people with disabilities lead better lives, Tibor tapped Neil Scott, research leader of the Archimdedes Project at Stanford University's Center for the Study of Language and Information for engineering help.

Scott came up with a universal access device that lets people use voice-recognition, head-tracking and other systems to connect with a variety of computer and operating systems.

Tibor also is working on optical character recognition (or text-reading) products that work on any computer system. And his company is designing a computer mouse that will help blind users ``feel'' objects on a screen by, for example, making the mouse feel like it is going over a bump when the cursor crosses a line on the screen.

Synapse Adaptive's clients include customers who have workers with special needs such as Bank of America, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Stanford and the National Security Agency.


Yesterday, Tibor was one of about 20 technologists invited to display their wares for people with disabilities on the lawn of Vice President Al Gore's Washington, D.C., residence. The event was part of the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Tingus of the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers calls the amount of technology available to help the disabled ``a little overwhelming.'' He said ``one of the most exciting developments is voice-activated environmental control units,'' noting that the buzzword for some of this gear is EADL, for electronic aides to daily living.

``If one can't use the standard joystick on a wheelchair, there are several alternatives,'' explained Christine Wright-Ott, occupational therapist at the Lucille Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford.

Infrared switches mounted in the headrest, for example, translate head movement into wheelchair directions. Tilt head back to go forward; tilt forward to stop. Adaptive Switch Laboratories in Spicewood, Texas, is one of the leaders in this technology.

Other pioneers in high-tech computer control and communication gear include:

-- Origin Instruments, another Texas enterprise, which specializes in communication devices for people with limited or no use of their hands. Its HeadMouse replaces a standard desktop computer mouse with a wireless optical sensor that sits on top of the monitor and uses infrared light to track a small, disposable target placed on the user's forehead or glasses. Head movements can direct the cursor on a screen and the user ``clicks'' a command by holding position for a brief moment.

-- NewAbilities Systems in Palo Alto was started in 1992 to bring Silicon Valley technology to people with disabilities. The company's Tongue Touch Keypad lets people who cannot use their arms or legs use their tongues to operate power wheelchairs, computers, cordless phones and home electronics.

This is an alternative to more conventional ``sip-and-puff'' technology used by actor Christopher Reeve to control a wheelchair by sucking or blowing air through a tube. The keypad contains a miniature circuit board with a nine-button keypad and radio transmitter that fits into a standard dental retainer worn in the roof of the mouth. So far, the company has sold about 300 of the devices, which are priced from $10,000 to $18,000 and are equipped with a lunch-box-size control unit.

Company President Bob Jagunich, who has worked at medical device companies Laserscope and Acusound, said his ``intra-oral'' electronic technology is designed to help people with severe spinal cord, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy and other disabilities.

One user is Brooke Ellison who has been paralyzed from the neck down and on a respirator since she was in an auto accident 10 years ago. In May, she became the first quadriplegic to graduate from Harvard University.

For home accessibility products and custom installation, she recommends Max-Ability Inc. in Santa Rosa.The company, which provides the latest lift systems, caterpillarlike stair climbers and other equipment, was started eight years ago.

``It's important to find the right equipment and have it installed correctly,'' said owner Lee Kaufman, ``not only for people with disabilities but those who care for them and often suffer back injuries in the process.'' Kaufman spent 25 years as a registered nurse and health care equipment distributor.


Large companies are investing in products for those with disabilities.

Last month, Wells Fargo Bank and the California Council of the Blind announced what they said might be the nation's first effort to install talking automated teller machines. Wells pledged to install audio headphones for visually impaired customers at each of its more than 1,500 ATMs in California.

Companies also are introducing ``universally accessible'' office equipment. Last year, for example, Pitney Bowes introduced a copier that recognizes voice commands, includes a Braille keyboard and is wheelchair-accessible. However, the product is twice the price of an $8,000 conventional model.

Despite the technological advances and the law that for 10 years has banned employers from discriminating against job applicants because they have a physical or mental disability, not all the news is good.

The Center for an Accessible Society reports that American employers have yet to successfully tap the market of 43 million working-age Americans with disabilities. Although the unemployment rate is the lowest in 30 years, Americans with disabilities still have an unemployment rate of 70 percent, the same level as a decade ago.

Misperceptions rather than lack of abilities seem to be the main problem.

A survey released last week by Cornell University's Institute for Workplace Studies reported that 22 percent of more than 800 private employers and 43 percent of more than 400 federal department employers cited negative attitudes of supervisors and co-workers toward people with disabilities as a continuing barrier to employment and advancement.

Tibor of Synapse Adaptive maintains that laws and technology alone don't solve the problem.

``The individual with limitations has to be willing to put in extra time and effort (to master the technology),'' he said. ``And the employer has to provide adequate time and support for the individual to learn the job and become proficient.''


Some breakthroughs originally developed for and by people with disabilities:

1808 -- Pellegrino Turri builds the first typewriter for his blind friend, Countess Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzono.

1876 -- Alexander Graham Bell receives a patent for the telephone, one of many devices he developed in support of his work with the deaf.

1920s -- Harvey Fletcher builds the Western Electric Model 2A hearing aid at the Research Division of Bell.

1934 -- The Readphone, which reproduced literature and music on long-playing disks and was a precursor to books on tape, is invented.

1936 -- Bell Labs scientist H.W. Dudley invents the first electronic speech synthesizer called the ``voice coder'' or ``Voder,'' which became a hit at the New York and San Francisco World's fairs of 1939.

1952 -- The first speech recognizer is developed by Bell Labs.

1964 -- Deaf orthodontist Dr. James Marsters of Pasadena ships a teletype machine to deaf scientist Robert Weitchrecht in Redwood City and requests a way to attach it to the telephone system. Today, hundreds of millions of people communicate through the Internet using much the same technology as Telecommunications Devices for the Deaf (TDDs).

1972 -- Vinton Cerf, hearing impaired since birth, develops e-mail- like text-messaging protocols for the Arpanet, the precursor to the Internet.

1975 -- Kurzweil Computer Products creates the Kurzweil Reading Machine and the first multifont optical character recognition (OCR) technology.

1988 -- Retail point-of-sale (POS) devices begin to use picture-based keyboards from technology developed in the mid-1960s to enable people who are unable to speak to use a keyboard, computer and speech synthesizer to communicate.

1990 -- The Americans with Disabilities Act mandates that all telephones be equipped with a volume control and/or a shelf and outlets to accommodate telecommunication devices for the deaf.

Mid-1990s -- Many new products are developed: voice-activated phones, lamps, switches and other devices for people who are paralyzed; talking Caller ID, pagers and other devices for the visually impaired; phones with volume and tone controls for the hearing impaired.

1996 -- Productivity Works develops a browser that translates information from Web pages into speech.

1997 -- NCR Corp. develops the first audio ATM to provide access to banking for the visually impaired.

Source: Center for an Accessible Society


Some sites for information on technology for individuals with disabilities:

--Assistive Technology (AT) Network  Developed by the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers, this Sacramento organization has extensive information on state and federal policy initiatives, technology services and devices. (800) 390-2699

TDD (800) 900-0706

--Center for Applied Rehabilitation Technology (CART). This Downey (Los Angeles County) nonprofit assists children and adults with physical disabilities in leading more independent lives through the use of assistive technology. (562) 401-6800

TTY: (562) 401-2845

--Center for an Accessible Society. Financed by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, this center provides information about and expert sources on disability and independent living issues.

--National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research. This Washington, D.C., unit of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services conducts research and helps integrate disability research into national policies on science and technology, health care and economics. (202) 205-8134

TTY: (202) 205-9433

--2000 Closing the Gap Conference. The international conference scheduled for October 19-21 in Bloomington, Minn., will feature more than 150 sessions that describe and demonstrate successful applications of computer technology for people with disabilities. Web site offers extensive resources on technology and links to companies that make it. Started in May, this Mountain View company's Web site is designed for the global community of more than 750 million people with disabilities, their friends and support circles. It offers news, information on care, technology, products and community services. Also started two months ago, this Florida site provides an all-inclusive online destination for individuals in the disability community. It offers news, sports and travel information as well as peer support and medical products.

Source: Chronicle research

E-mail Peter Sinton at

2000 San Francisco Chronicle   Page D1

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