Sun, Oct 07, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Technology breaks the silence

New technology is allowing people such as Alan Martin, who has cerebral palsy, the chance to communicate properly for the first time

By Jon Henley  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Constance Chou

I am sitting staring at a computer screen. So far so banal, except that this screen features a red dot that, by some technological magic, tracks the movement of my eyes: I can place it where I want on the screen just by looking. The bottom of the screen portrays a keyboard, although I could, if I chose, select other screens made up of various vocabulary, grammar and expression-based menus, which, for experienced users, would doubtless speed things up.

Because this is painstaking. I look at a letter, and the red dot sits on it. I continue staring, and the dot blinks, twice. The letter then pops up at the top of the screen. I move on to the next letter (or, more often, the backspace).

It gets easier: there’s predictive text, like on a mobile phone, so I stare at the word I want, which gets added to my sentence. Eventually, the phrase is complete. I stare at it and it blinks.

“What an amazing machine,” says a cool, synthesized voice. “Rather let down by its user.”

This is eye-gaze technology, at the leading edge of a fast-evolving and — for those who need it — vital field known as augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), plus the closely related assistive technology (AT). Without it, we would have been denied access to the remarkable mind of Stephen Hawking (not to mention his starring role at the Paralympics opening ceremony). Nor would the British locked-in syndrome sufferer Tony Nicklinson have been able to express so memorably — using eye-gaze — his despair at being refused the right to an assisted suicide.

Hawking, with characteristic elegance, summarizes its value: “Even more important than the freedom of speech is the freedom to speak.”

Most of us know nothing about it. Worse, says Anna Reeves of the ACE Centre, a British charity that provides independent AAC assessments, advice and training, “a lot of people who need it have real trouble getting it. The funding’s a mess. It falls between education and health, and most local authorities don’t have specific budgets for it.”

Yet AAC can be life-changing. Alan Martin, who developed cerebral palsy as an infant, was 31 before friends clubbed together to buy his first communication aid.

“Before that,” he explains in one of several pre-recorded messages he can activate on his current machine, “I relied on facial expressions and gestures. It was very frustrating.”

Jovial and instantly engaging, Martin now runs his own company, Mouse on the Move, providing inclusive dance workshops for people with disabilities. To talk, and teach, he uses a wheelchair-mounted portable computer. He has reasonable control of his right arm, so uses a finger to press symbols on the screen that open up successive folders of images, words and frequently used phrases. He can also send e-mails and — an exciting new addition — text messages through a mobile phone connected to his computer. The whole system, Reeves says, cost around £8,000 (US$12,900), and is in the middle of a spectrum of more than 100 different kinds of communication aids.

At one end are simple picture books and communication boards from which users select letters, words, phrases, pictures or symbols to communicate their message. Simple electronic devices contain digitized speech messages pre-recorded by a family member or carer and activated by a big button. More sophisticated boards hold up to 32 symbols and attached messages.

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