Computers Assisting The Handicapped


Christopher R. Murphy

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Computers and the Disabled

"For the first time in their lives, many disabled people find themselves able to belong somewhere, a virtual community where they can be swept along by daily events, as in any other community." ( Sussman 85)

"Out of every one hundred persons, ten are disabled. In the United States more than twenty million people have a disability that affects their daily lives." (Cattoche 13) Several of these handicaps can be effectively dealt with by using conventional devices most are already familiar with: a wheelchair to help someone that can not walk, a hearing aid to help the hard of hearing, or even something as simple as a magnifying glass to enlarge the fine print for someone that has vision problems.

For the last few decades, scientists and engineers have developed special devices for the disabled that have greatly advanced the conventional ones that already exist. Almost all of these current devices would not exist without the incorporation of computers and computer technologies.

Computers for Blind and Visually-Impaired Individuals

"The Internet has changed forever the lives of blind people, mainly because it provides independent access to information..."(Sreenivasan C7)

"Five hundred thousand blind people live in the United States; a million more are partially sighted. Most blindness occurs in people more than sixty years old, while fewer than ten percent of blind people are under twenty-one." (Cattoche 57)

Computer programs and devices are available to allow people to input text using Braille keys on an otherwise regular keyboard. With certain printers they can produce their work as either a Braille copy or normal ink text. If a blind person does not know Braille, helpful devices such as speech synthesizers can speak the letters, words, and sentences shown on the screen. This is particularly helpful with such things as word processors, email, and the Internet. Lately, however, there have been a few problems, specifically with the Internet.

Many blind people today use text-to-speech "screen readers" that work only with the character-based DOS operating system, not with graphical user interfaces such as Web browsers. Many companies put applications on graphics-intensive Intranets and Web sites. When they do this without providing text-based pages equivalent to the graphical ones they may be shutting the door on employees and/or customers that are sight-impaired. (Blodgett 15)

Things are not all hopeless though. Microsoft Corp. has released an Active Accessibility software developer's kit for Windows applications. The latest version of Microsoft's Internet Explorer has a text-only option for screen readers. Netscape Communications Corp. also has an OS/2 Warp 4 application that utilizes speech-recognition capabilities that will aid visually impaired users. The best news is that a company called Productivity Works, Inc. is developing an application called PWWebspeak 1.2. This innovative creation is a speaking Web browser designed to understand the Hypertext Markup Language pages (such as this one).

Unfortunately, innovations like multiple-page frames and bit-mapped images (which makes things easy for sighted users) are still a big hindrance for the sight-impaired. Screen readers are thrown off by such things. The best solution for such problems is to keep the visually-impaired in mind and provide text-only version of the same sites (or a "no frames" option). Judith Dixon, consumer relations officer at Washington-based National Libraries Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, put it well when she stated, "Things are getting better all the time. Computers can do so much for the handicapped. We just need more help." (Blodgett 15) Image of Combs listening to his computer.

Computers have been a wonderful blessing for Norman Coombs, a blind, 62-year-old professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology. An article from U.S. News and World Report explains how Coombs uses a portable voice synthesizer that automatically converts text in his computer into spoken words. The article discusses how, "A few years ago, Coombs would have had to hire a human reader or wait a week for Braille versions of newspapers and magazines. Now he uses his computer to log on to databases of library catalogs and listen to electronic editions of periodicals." (Sussman 85) Coombs also uses his computer and modem to teach classes long distance to students in other states. (85)

Computers for the Physically Challenged

"About ten million people have disabilities that affect movement. Most people with physical disabilities use canes, crutches, or braces to aid in walking. More than 500,000 need wheelchairs to become mobile. There are many causes of movement disabilities, including spinal cord injuries, nerve and muscle diseases, cerebral palsy, stroke, accidents, amputation, and severe arthritis." (
Cattoche 23)

Kris Rytter with her Alternative Communication System Computers are especially useful for those with physical disabilities. One good example from Robert J. Cattoche's book, Computers for the Disabled, talks about a young woman named Kris Rytter. Kris suffers from cerebral palsy (a condition caused by brain damage, which impairs movement and sometimes limits speech) and to help her communicate she uses a computer device. At the time of this book's publication, Kris was using a device suited for her particular physical needs, developed by specialists from the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington. This device is called the Alternative Communication System. Kris communicates by entering information into the computer by Morse code. One switch at the side of Kris' head controls the dot signal, while another produces the dash signal.

This fascinating device, as well as many others, uses special hardware implementations to allow the device to work. Special electrodes can pick up the small electrical signals created by the slightest movement in a muscle. These electrodes are able to detect the electrical currents generated by the moving of the muscle. The electrode connects to another device, which operates a switch that controls inputs into the computer. (Cattoche 27)

Computers for Deaf and Hearing-Impaired Individuals

"Of the sixteen million hearing-impaired individuals in the United States, two million are deaf—unable to understand normal conversation even with the assistance of a hearing aid. Some deaf people can hear sounds, such as a bell ringing or a door slamming." (
Cattoche 46)

A deaf person can learn to communicate in many ways. They can learn through sight what the ear cannot hear. Lip-reading, American Sign Language, reading, and writing all help them learn, to name a few. A computer is a wonderful device for the hearing-impaired because computer hardware and software (by their nature) commonly produces visual output. Therefore deaf or hearing-impaired people can utilize the same programs that everyone else uses. There are, of course, special hardware and software items available for specific cases.

Programs have been developed to offer training and practice for the hearing-impaired in such things as sign language, finger spelling, and even lip-reading. Of course these programs are not just limited to the deaf or hearing-impaired. Anyone can gain experience and learn from such software, especially family members and friends of the hearing-impaired. All the user needs is a system with a microphone and the correct software. "The person selects a word, and the correct pronunciation is displayed as a pattern on the screen. The word produced by the deaf individual speaking into the microphone is also displayed as a pattern on the screen. The deaf person compares both patterns and through practice improves the pronunciation of the word." (Cattoche 47)

Much more common is the widespread use of electronic mail, or email and chat programs. Taken for granted by most, these wonderful innovations are terrific for the hearing-impaired because of they don't require you to hear or speak (both of which a telephone requires). Especially handy are the chat programs (see end of article for an example) , which allow real-time conversations through the use of a computer and an Internet connection. With the use of these applications, the user's handicap is not an issue or a problem.

Employment Opportunities and Independent Living

"Computers help give disabled people what they want more than anything else – independence." ( Sussman 85)

Mark Geisler, a quadriplegic, runs a desktop-publishing business. The future outlook for people with handicaps is excellent. Computers have, and are giving disabled people a powerful tool for achieving independence in their daily lives. Not only that, but it is a powerful tool for learning new job skills. Of greatest importance to disabled people, perhaps, is the ability of the computer and modem to immerse them into a world that might otherwise be off limits. A disabled person using a computer has access to vast amounts of information at his fingertips. People with disabilities can tap into practical disability-related information or converse with other disabled people. Not only that, they can also enter the mainstream. With the help of these computer devices and advanced software many disabled people can be just as competitive as anyone else.

There may be some problems with these great computer abilities however. Despite their numerous advantages, computers can be unfriendly to the disabled: "Software requiring a user to press two keys simultaneously, for instance, is unworkable for some…" (Sussman 85). This is only a minor issue though, such software applications should keep the handicapped in mind and make workarounds for such issues.

As computers and cyberspace become easier to navigate, the disabled are regaining power over a crucial part of their lives. For example, an article in U.S. News & World Report discusses a former deputy sheriff who was permanently disabled in the line of duty, Gary Hogsten. Although he could no longer do serve as he did before, Hogsten wanted some way to continue his public service, "…so he became a section leader for the White House Forum of the CompuServe Information Service, a lively online discussion area. The ability to exchange ideas electronically and help others is no mere avocation, says Hogsten. 'I lost a career,' he says, 'but my computer and modem have given me back some of the dignity I lost.' " (Sussman 85)

"Along with independence comes the capability for even severely disabled people to earn a living." ( Sussman 85)

An image of a Powwow. An image of a Powwow. An example of a creative chat application is a program called Powwow. Created by Tribal Voice, this program allows one to talk up to seven different people at once. Not only can a deaf person use it, but someone who is blind can as well! The program has built in text-to-speech so the blind can actually hear what the others are typing to the screen. All you need is a decent sound card and some speakers. The greatest thing is this software is free and can be downloaded for Windows 3.1 or Windows95 at


Blodgett, Mindy. "Blind Users Stymied by New Internet Graphics" Computer World September 1996: 15-16.

Cattoche, Robert. J. Computers for the Disabled. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data, 1986.

Sreenivasan, Sreenath. "Blind Users Add Access On the Web." The New York Times 2 December 1996:C7(N).

Sussman, Vic. "Opening Doors to an Inaccessible World." U.S. News & World Report September 1994: 85.

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(Last updated: February 17, 1997)

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