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Computing for the disabled still goal, not reality

One invention at a time
Mon Apr 28 2003, 09:25
THE MODERN COMPUTER environment and the connectivity offered by the Internet have made an astonishing amount of information available to the end user all from within the privacy of his or her own home. Law libraries, medical journals, technical information, and philosophical texts are available for the reading or researching, with entire libraries of information available virtually and instantly searchable. The dropping price of computing power and of Internet access has allowed lower-income families increased access to the World Wide Web, and for most social groups the last six years have seen an increase in the number of people in any given strata who have access to the Internet and the wealth of information it provides.

One group, however, that's been unintentionally left out of the so-called digital revolution has been the severely disabled. This isn't due to any systematic discrimination, but simply because the two tools that drive 95% of computing (the keyboard and mouse) both require a high degree of dexterity that a stroke victim, quadriplegic, or otherwise disabled person doesn't possess. Because such people are a very small part of the market research into providing them with alternative ways of accessing computer technology has moved ahead at a snails pace—but one researcher in particular had dedicated himself to improving the ability of the disabled to use computer technology.

Dr. Eamon Doherty has already invented tools to allow the disabled to dial phones, browse the Internet in a limited fashion, or even take a tour around their home using a remote camera affixed to a small toy dog. Most of Dr. Doherty's work has used spare parts and cast-off toys, but his research and motivation to continue to find solutions to the problem of handicapped computer access are iron-clad. Using technology developed by Doherty, patients he has worked with have seen remarkable advancements in their ability to use modern technology, including one recent patient who's used an invention of the doctor's to move a mouse using electrical impulses from the brain.

While such work is not unique, Doherty's approach of using toys and second-hand robotics to accomplish such tasks is. The idea that the human brain could be used as a direct interface with a computer, once found only in science fiction, has begun to become actual fact. Doherty's latest work in progress is a system that will allow the disabled to control a complex piece of machinery (such as a robotic arm) using only facial movements.

Although the work Dr. Doherty is doing is still in its infancy, his methods show tremendous promise for giving the disabled access to the Internet that the rest of us take for granted. Computers have long been seen as devices that could dramatically enhance the lives of the handicapped, or even repair the damage they've suffered, and while we're a long way yet from nanite-like robots doing automated repair work on the human body research like Doherty's is proving that robotic and computer technology can be used to extend a degree of freedom and connectivity to a class of people who were formerly all but cut off from their peers.

Hopefully the eventual advent of speech recognition and other technologies that broaden the types of input that can be used to effectively control a computer will only aid in opening access to systems formerly closed to people due to circumstances entirely beyond their control. µ

New York Times


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